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Excerpt

December Breeze

Marvel Moreno (trans. by Charlotte Coombe, Isabel Adey)

November 21, 2022 
The following is from Marvel Moreno's December Breeze. Moreno was born in Barranquilla, Colombia, in 1939. She is well known in Colombia and is considered one of the most important Colombian writers. Her novel December Breeze was a finalist in the Plaza y Janés International Literary Prize in 1985 and was translated into Italian and French. In 1989 she received the Grinzane-Cavour prize awarded in Italy for the best foreign book. She died in Paris in 1995.

For I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing children for the sin of the parents, to the third and fourth generation.”

Because the Bible, as her grandmother saw it, contained all the preconceptions that could make man ashamed of his origin, and not just his origin, but also his innate impulses, urges, instincts, call them what you may, turning a fleeting lifetime into a hell of guilt and remorse, frustration and aggression. Yet that same book also held the wisdom of the world it had helped to create ever since it was written, and so it was important to read the words carefully and reflect on its assertions, as arbitrary as they seemed, to fully understand the hows and whys of all human suffering. So whenever something happened to cause ripples in the murky though seemingly calm mass of lives that had formed the city’s elite for over a hundred and fifty years, her grandmother, sitting there in a rattan rocking chair, amid the din of the cicadas and the dense, drowsy air of two in the afternoon, would remind her of the biblical curse as she explained that whatever had happened—or more precisely, its origins—could be traced back a century, or several centuries, and that she, her grandmother, had been expecting this for as long as she could remember, ever since she had been capable of establishing a link between cause and effect.

This fatalism filled Lina with fear; not surprise—by the age of fourteen she was no longer shocked by the things her grandmother and aunts said—but a dark dread that tingled in her hands as she wondered for the thousandth time what misfortune she had already been condemned to by fate. Seeing her grandmother sitting across from her, tiny and fragile like a seven-year-old girl, her white hair pulled back and coiled into a modest bun at the nape of her neck, she felt as if she were listening to an age-old Cassandra; not animated or hysterical, in fact not even a real Cassandra since she wasn’t lamenting her own fate or that of others, but a sage whose prophecies would inevitably be fulfilled. Someone who carried the past in her memory, assimilating and understanding it in order to divine the present and even the future with a vague sadness, like a goddess who is benevolent but outside of creation, and therefore powerless to prevent the mistakes and suffering of mankind. For this reason, her grandmother—convinced that everything was preordained, that a secret force controls every step we take in life, forcing us to go one way instead of another—refused to intervene when Lina asked her to save Dora from marrying Benito Suárez, although in theory she could have done, because there was no one in the world Dora’s mother respected more than Lina’s grandmother.

Lina thought that a single phone call, or just a note, would be enough to coax Doña Eulalia del Valle out of her seclusion and make her walk the four blocks to where Lina and her grandmother lived. She also thought that once Doña Eulalia told her grandmother the lengthy litany of woes otherwise known as the ordeal of her life, that is to say, if she felt she had gained the sympathy of not only her daughter or maids but also someone she admired for her “lineage” and “exemplary conduct”—terms she always used to describe Lina’s grandmother—she would be willing to accept her advice. Even if that meant rejecting Dora’s union, her idea of ‘purification’, with a lunatic like Benito Suárez. But her grandmother had refused to pick up the phone, telling Lina: If it isn’t Benito Suárez, it’ll be someone else just like him, because it seems to me that your friend Dora is bound to be chosen by the kind of man who will take off his belt and beat her with it the first time he sleeps with her.

Many years later, in the autumn of her life, having heard similar stories here and there, having learned to listen and express herself without prejudice or anger, Lina would suddenly be reminded of Dora as she watched a woman walk past the terrace of Café Bonaparte, and she would wonder, smiling, if perhaps her grandmother had been right: right in saying that Dora was destined to get together with a man who would beat her when they slept together, first for the act itself, and then again for having done it with another man. But not back then. Back then, she’d just turned fourteen, and nobody, not even her grandmother, could convince her that Dora was being drawn by some dark force towards the man who would surely be the cause of her ruin, as inexplicably as a cat is driven by instinct to risk its life on the flimsy branches of a guava tree simply because a bird is fluttering about between the leaves, knowing all the while it will never catch the bird, and despite already having a belly full of lunch scraps.

At that time, the forces her grandmother spoke of—the correct name for which Lina would learn reading Freud, and not without some scepticism—sounded like one of those enemies that stalk mankind, like disease and madness, forces that need to be warded off in the name of dignity, in other words, in order to make it through life with a degree of decency, trying where possible to not inconvenience others, the way a newspaper should be left as we find it, more crumpled perhaps, but never with its pages torn or missing. And not out of consideration for others, since nobody gave it to us and nobody expects it back, but because it is always best to guard against carelessness, even though we know that in the long run we will inevitably lose and the newspaper will end up being thrown away. In other words, back then, in her own way, Lina already saw any form of surrender as unforgivable, no matter how often her grandmother alluded to the intervention of those mysterious forces, and especially if that surrender meant marrying a man like Benito Suárez.

Because Lina knew him. She had met him on a Saturday during Carnival in unusual circumstances, although that adjective, which Lina deliberately used so as not to be accused of exaggeration when she later told her grandmother the tale, by no means described the dramatic way Benito Suárez had first appeared, bursting onto the scene to become a permanent fixture in her life. From that day on, as Dora’s closest friend, Lina was in no doubt that Benito Suárez would cross her path again, always causing the same drama and occasionally provoking the same icy rage she’d felt when she’d seen him pulling up that day on the corner in his Studebaker, jumping out and chasing Dora, who was running blindly towards Lina’s front door, having fled the car with her face all bloody. It took Lina a long time to understand the full extent of what happened, the fact that simply witnessing the scene had changed her, or more precisely, it had set in motion the process that was to change her irrevocably. This was something that only struck her years later, as she realised that she could still recall the tiniest details of that Saturday during Carnival when she first saw Benito Suárez: the blue Studebaker screeching to a halt on the corner as she watched from the dining-room window, stunned, sitting at the mahogany table big enough for twelve and littered with her notebooks and the roll of tracing paper she had just cut in order to draw a map of Colombia’s rivers and mountains; then next to it, the rubber, the bottle of ink and the little heap of sand she was planning to stick on where the mountain peaks opened up into volcanoes. She would always remember the pen flying out of her hands and staining the polished tabletop, Dora running crazed, stumbling, Benito Suárez catching up with her in the garden and once more hitting her across the face, which was now bloodied beyond recognition, and then the two of them, Dora and her, running towards the front door, Dora from the garden while she, Lina, dashed up the hallway and flung the door open, suddenly striking Benito Suárez with one of the porch chairs, not to stop him from coming in—he’d already made it into the hall with a face so determined there seemed no way of beating him back—but to stall him. Yes. The shock of seeing her, a thirteen-year-old girl who had just broken a Louis XVI chair over his back, hissing, “Watch out, the dog’s coming for you!” The shock and the impact, maybe the pain: that was enough to slow him down. Lina would recall the short seconds in which she managed to grab Dora by the hand, drag her down the hallway to the dining room and slip behind the sideboard where she used to hide when her grandmother came after her, clutching that dreaded bottle of Milk of Magnesia. Gasping for breath, suddenly soaked in sweat, with Dora’s face resting in her lap and sticky blood staining her blue jeans, she whispered into Dora’s ear: “Stop crying . . . he’ll kill us both.”

Because Benito Suárez did want to kill them, at least that’s what he was shouting as he crashed around the deserted house, kicking the furniture and calling her, Lina, a little fucking bitch. She’d heard him shout it from the dining room as he sent her notebooks flying onto the floor with a swipe of his hand; she heard his panting breath, with an inflection in his voice that was devoid of any human quality and resembled the groaning of an animal, furiously trying to make sounds that almost morphed into sentences. Perhaps it was that ragechoked voice, not her realization that the setters were barking madly in the backyard, which had made Lina think of the dog: the mongrel had no name and never barked, but its silence held the same capacity for hate, the same murderous impulse as the man who was kicking the sideboard she was hiding behind, her hand over Dora’s mouth to keep her from crying out. The dog came into her head, not impulsively, like when she’d bashed Benito Suárez over the back with the chair, but with a sudden, calculated coldness that would later shock her; that is, later on, when she told her grandmother how she’d crept down the hallway as soon as she could no longer hear the aggressive spluttering of insults, made her way to the tree where the dog was tied up, grabbed him by the loop of his collar and went looking for Benito Suárez until she found him in the hallway next to the overturned chair. She was surprised, even more surprised when her grandmother told her: “I, for one, can certainly imagine you setting that wretched dog on Benito Suárez.”

But long before what she would come to call the first skirmish (there would be so many others that Lina would get used to seeing that man as a natural yet almost innocuous enemy because she could predict his reactions and, for some reason, had a strange soft spot for him), Lina had already started to get the measure of Benito Suárez. She’d closely followed his tumultuous relationship with Dora, being her confidante from the moment she started at La Enseñanza, when Dora, perhaps driven by a precocious maternal instinct, had taken her under her wing: for a whole year, she’d protected Lina like a mother hen—religiously saving her a window seat on the school bus, or sitting her on her lap. Then things started to change, because while Lina moved up to the first, second and third grades of elementary school, Dora kept repeating fourth grade, and that was where they found themselves—Lina aged eight and Dora aged eleven—when their relationship was inverted once and for all, and Lina realized that if she wanted to get her friend out of that predicament, she’d have to whisper the answers to her during tests, write her essays, explain division to her again and again, and phone her to make sure she’d done her homework. But she managed, in the end, with cheating and sheer tenacity, to drag her up to the seventh grade, when all her hard work went up in smoke because Dora got expelled from La Enseñanza for picking up a lollipop a boy had thrown to her from the school wall.

Lina had always thought Dora was too quiet: she didn’t play at breaktime or take part in the pranks that Lina, Catalina and her friends meticulously planned, trying to cause a disturbance that would wind the nuns up and break the monotony of the lessons. In fact, Dora had never joined in anything that required movement or physical activity: she was a very calm child, almost plantlike, with the indolent appearance of an organism engrossed in something that was happening inside itself, pulsating in its own cells. She was fed so many vitamins as a child that by the age of nine she started maturing, and at fourteen—when they expelled her from the school for the lollipop incident—she was fully developed and had that languid air about her, that sway in her step which impelled the boys from Biffi to clamber up the school wall crowned with a veritable thicket of broken bottle glass, leaving the concrete strewn with the skin from their knees and the sweat of their longing, just so they could watch her for a minute during breaktime. She was not beautiful like Catalina, and she lacked Beatriz’s refinement. She was not exactly graceful or seductive to look at. No. There was something more distant, more profound about her: the kind of thing that stimulated the first molecule to reproduce or the first organism to fertilize itself, that throbbed at the bottom of the ocean before any form of life appeared on land and then, throbbing, sucked in, absorbed and created other beings, expelled them from itself; as life in its rawest form, then later, as the primitive female; not necessarily the human female but any female capable of luring the rowdy and fractious male into her cave and momentarily calming his aggression, not only to make him perform the act that might be his raison d’être as part of nature, but also to remind him that there exists a more intense and perhaps more ancient pleasure than the pleasure of killing.

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From December Breeze by Marvel Moreno. Used with permission of the publisher, Europa Editions. Copyright © by Marvel Moreno. Translation copyright© 2022 by Charlotte Coombe, Isabel Adey.




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