A Hay Festival Cartagena Short Story: Roots By Mariana Torres
In 2017, Bogotá in Colombia was the scene of an extraordinary event, produced by Hay Festival: a meeting of 39 young writers from 17 Latin American nations representing the next generation of the continent’s literary stars. From this selection, an anthology of short stories, Bogota 39, was produced and translated worldwide, breaking the stereotype of a magic realist tradition with its myriad styles and subjects.
To celebrate Service95 Book Club’s Monthly Read for October – One Hundred Years Of Solitude by Gabriel García Marquez, here is a contribution from novelist Mariana Torres translated by Lisa Dillman, which appears in Bogota 39.
by Mariana Torres
They never tell you whether the place chooses its inhabitants – entices them somehow, until they turn up with their belongings from other lives and cast their children down there – or the emigrant is the one with the ability to choose. I elect to be born. I elect to be born here. I choose this territory and its islands covered in tiny crabs for my children to grow up and put down roots. Long, fleshy roots born from the soles of their feet that reach down into the earth. Sinking into the sand, mixing with the salt, the sugar cane, the mosquitoes.
Another thing they never tell you is that moving those roots hurts.
And they don’t tell you that uprooting them leaves a mark, that it’s something you carry all your life.
I was born in Brazil because everything grows in that soil. All you have to do is drive a broomstick into the ground and it will sprout leaves. I was born quickly, with no fuss. My mother says she started having contractions while picking lettuces in the vegetable patch and, because she assumed it was one of her stomach aches, she kept working. When we got to the hospital they anaesthetized her and pulled me out, caesarean. I was a girl and weighed less than a stuffed turkey. The day I was born my father ate an apple and buried the seeds. One of them took root and from those roots grew an apple tree, a gangly apple tree that in a year was already several centimetres taller than I was. My parents set wooden stakes all around its trunk to make it grow straight, without bending.
At the time we lived in a too-perfect place, though I didn’t know it then. To me it was normal to have a beach twenty metres from the door, and banana and guava and lemon trees, and land to plant lettuces on, and a white house, and a warm, stable climate, and big rocks to climb in the garden and a town a few kilometres away where people whistled songs on dirt roads.
I was almost one when I dared to lift my feet from the ground and pull up my own roots. I raised my right foot for the first time and my roots hung in the air. I felt a cramp that began in the middle of my foot and surged up my body to my belly button. Like the lash of a whip. Painful and yet, at the same time, comforting. I got used to the feeling and, carefully, took my first steps. And I saw how the roots re-took in the earth when I rested my foot back in the hot sand. The sand on which I took my first steps was hot and humid.
Because everything in Brazil is hot and humid.
The apple tree was growing well and, since my parents knew about trees and wooden stakes, it also grew straight. I learned to climb it. I would place one foot on the stake, the other on the trunk and climb up to the lowest branches. From the apple tree’s trunk I could touch the sea with my fingertips. A dark-blue sea, speckled with islands. And smell our beach and our stretch of sea. Because everyone I knew had their own beach and stretch of sea.
Angra dos Reis, back then, was almost-wild territory, and though it’s hard to build on the jungle, if you keep insisting, the jungle gives in. There was a time when it was overrun with European buyers invading the land with cement mixers, tons of brick and countless litres of melted asphalt, which they spread over the dirt roads. My parents gave in as well, because I had to go to school: kids couldn’t grow up without school, they said, lettuce heads won’t educate you. That was when we left the white house and island of tiny crabs behind. When I found out we were leaving I climbed the apple tree’s trunk as high as I could and didn’t come down for several days. My mother pruned the tree to get me down and my father dug up the earth around it to extract its roots. A tree’s roots are much longer than those of a human. As my parents pruned, I sat on the ground to look at my feet. I turned them over, shook off the dirt and worms. And on the bottom of my feet, all along the sole, I found them. My roots were still there, they’d got broader at the base, and shorter, but looked strong. It no longer hurt to expose them. I looked at my apple tree, submissive, allowing my parents to prune it with their four hands, sever its roots and transplant it to a pot. Without them seeing, I grabbed the pruners and sheared off, one by one, the roots growing from my feet. I bit my tongue so as to keep from screaming. My cuts raw and bleeding, I ran to the beach and got in the water. Salt from the sea, my mother used to say, cures everything. I rode with the apple tree, in the back of the van, surrounded by belongings and hugging its trunk. There were so few branches left I was sure it was going to die.
When we got to our new home in Rio de Janeiro – an apartment in a block full of other apartments – my parents placed the apple tree out in the open air. There was a balcony with no roof, so the branches could reach up, in search of sun and rain. The apple tree, the following spring, was covered in shoots. The branches filled with tiny buds that grew, forming leaf clusters that fattened and then sent out long threads that turned into white flowers.
‘It’s acclimatized well,’ said my parents, proud.
And I adapted too. To heaving plazas full of people where I had to sit on my father’s shoulders in order for us to make our way through. To traffic, to cars, to scooters, to pollution, to the smell of people. And, instead of climbing the apple tree, I took off my shoes and climbed wooden structures in public parks. The soles of my feet grew hard because I was always barefoot. I grabbed hold of creepers and vines and climbed walls and slipped into neighbours’ houses, and they invited me to lunch. I played hooky from school and went to the beach, where the sand was mixed with asphalt, as though the two were part of the same beast. There I mingled with the people, who were everywhere, doing nothing, laughing at life, selling trinkets and juices and wooden whistles, sunbathing and laughing and drinking beer. There were people in every nook and on every corner, pulsating, running behind soccer balls, up in trees, on walls. There were people. Lots of people. I liked listening to them talk, seeing them move, spit, eat, sing.
And, being among all those people, I must have caught something. Right before summer my body became covered in plant shoots. My parents thought it was measles at first, so they pumped me full of antibiotics and made me stay home. Later they were told it was a tropical disease, typical of the country, nothing serious, though for me to be cured they had to get me out of there, forever. I shook myself, explained that they were shoots, told them how I’d cut the roots off my feet and that those mutilated roots were now seeking another place to emerge. They refused to listen. By then my body was covered in shoots, particularly my arms and legs, and a quite attractive one that looked like a broken tooth sprouted up on my cheek. They hurt, itched a bit, but I never complained. For weeks I couldn’t leave the house, or play hooky, or go to school. I stared at the apple tree, in full bloom, which was just beginning to lose its petals.
That was when my parents decided to move us far away, so we could live with other people, in another climate. A thing like that only existed on the other side of the ocean. When they gave me the news I ran to the apple tree and climbed its trunk. It had been years since I’d done so for fear of breaking it. But that day the tree stoically withstood my weight, my yanking and shaking that made its flower petals fall even faster. Sitting up in its branches, I felt invulnerable. I wanted them to go without me. To leave us there.
But that didn’t happen.
My mother pruned the apple tree until it was bare, tied its branches with packing tape and covered it in a layer of cloth to protect it from the cold in the plane’s hold. Me she wrapped in a woollen coat, plus a scarf to hide my cheek-shoot, and my feet she stuffed into four pairs of socks and a stiff pair of shoes. I could hardly breathe. At the airport our suitcases were weighed and sent off on a black conveyor belt. My apple tree weighed twenty-seven kilos, dirt included. I watched it make its way off along the belt and be swallowed up by the darkness of a tunnel. I disliked flying. When I looked out of the window I couldn’t see even the tiniest bit of earth, just a never-ending expanse of water, and lots of clouds.
At some point we landed. And despite the cold that hit my face when we exited the plane and despite the layers of clothing I had on, I managed to run to the luggage carousel. The apple tree was the first one out, proud, its upper crown wrenching free of the fabric, like a head popping out to breathe. I wanted to unclothe it then and there. But my parents made me go to the house, unpack the suitcases and, only then, strip off the layers of cloth. As we did, we discovered a miracle. What had been flowers before the trip were now fruit buds. Somehow, the rest, the dark and the cold of the plane’s hold had accelerated the process. My parents examined my entire body, looked at my arms, my legs. They found nothing new. My shoots were still there but, it seemed, I was starting to heal.
We put the apple tree out on the terrace. It was cold, but in truth that mild sun was pleasant. It hardly rains in this country, we had to put cream on our bodies so our skin wouldn’t crack. Soon my shoots dried up and disappeared, as though they’d never been with me. That didn’t strike me as unusual because nothing grows in this city. The earth is brown, hard and dry, it’s impossible to plant anything. I didn’t want to run around the new house, or go down to the swings to freeze, or try roasted chestnuts, much less speak to people in that strange language, I didn’t want to eat cured ham, or press my thumb onto a black inkpad to sign my new nationality, or play in the snow, or try lilac candies or even visit that famous park with a lake and wooden boats and lots of monstrous fish that pecked at your finger when you stuck your hand into the water. I didn’t want to do any of it but I did it all.
And though I said I was happy and even learned to fake it, the truth is that at night the scars on the soles of my feet burned. I’d sit in bed and look at my feet, and I almost believed my roots were going to sprout out again at any minute. But the sea salt had done a good job.
In time my apple tree died. Trees die, too, their trunks hollow out and the roots begin to rot, though you can’t tell from the outside. It never produced any apples. They don’t tell you that that happens to apple trees when they get transplanted. And if it did produce apples, I wasn’t around to see them. But I was there the day it died. I realized something wasn’t right towards the end of winter, when it was still cold but the sun was starting to warm up. The apple tree, rather than sprouting new leaves and shoots, began to lose leaves. They dried up, shrivelled and began to fall, four by four. It became infested with aphids and ants. And one day the wind got the best of it. I was the first one to see it toppled over on the ground, tall as it was, its roots sticking out of the earth, exposed to air. But the tree was already dead, and it couldn’t feel any pain.