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Excerpt

How to Turn Into a Bird

Maria Jose Ferrada (trans. Elizabeth Bryer)

December 9, 2022 
The following is from María José Ferrada's How to Turn Into a Bird. Ferrada’s children’s books have been published all over the world. Her first adult novel, How to Order the Universe, has been translated into nine languages. Ferrada has been awarded numerous prizes and is a three-time winner of the Chilean Ministry of Culture Award. How to Turn Into a Bird received the Chilean Art Critics Circle Award. She lives in Santiago, Chile.

Monday

Ramón climbed up the Coca-Cola billboard near the highway one Monday. That evening, as the sun was disappearing behind the hills that surround the housing complex, he decided he would stay. Even though it was late, the air was still warm. It was a heat that seemed even drier in this patch of the city, which had missed out on its share of pavement and trees because there had not been enough to spare.

“A desert,” he said. And he realized that the hulking iron structure, which reminded him of a mammoth’s skeleton, was big enough for furniture to fit inside: a mattress beneath what five million years before had been ribs, a table and a couple of chairs where the clavicle was, and a small lamp in the eye socket. He would rig up a water system by following the lattice of what had once been an immense forest of veins and nerves.

 

Tuesday

With the help of several ropes and a pul-ley system he invented himself, he moved from his apartment to the billboard in record time: no more than three or four hours. When he finished, he uttered words that he alone heard, because, up there, in addition to having a panoramic vista of the city, Ramón was just the way he liked to be: alone.

Pictured on the billboard was a giant woman. The convertible she was driving was the same shade of red as the can of soda, and one of its doors had white lettering that read: OPEN HAPPINESS.

The light in the billboard house blinked on at around ten, right in the hole of the letter O. I remember because it coincided with the moment when I switched off my lamp.

“Get to sleep, Miguel.”

“Yes, Mother,” I said.

But instead of obeying, I pressed my ear against the wall and listened to Ramón’s story.

The person talking on the phone in the apartment next to ours was my aunt Paulina, my mother’s sister, who had lived with Ramón for ten years (I am twelve). Ramón, Paulina was saying, would be paid the same amount he had earned at the PVC factory, where he had worked from eight to six, Monday to Friday. As for the billboard, he could go up it whenever he felt like it.

Did they make him sleep up there? No, he slept up there because he wanted to. Was he employed by Coca-Cola? No, he was employed by a company that erected billboards beside highways all over Latin America. Were there any more job openings? In all honesty, she didn’t know. Had Ramón finally gone mad all the way? That was a question best put to him, not her.

The telephone wouldn’t stop ringing, so I fell asleep to the sound of my aunt Paulina repeating the story, and I dreamed about a man who tossed bags of cash from a helicopter. The salaries—that was what was inside the bags—fell onto billboards: Nike, Panasonic, Ford, Gillette, Nestlé, L’Oréal, which were dotted across different capitals: Santiago, Lima, Buenos Aires, Managua, Mexico City. I was seated inside the helicopter and noticed that the billboards had something in common: it didn’t matter which city they had been erected in, all of them were beside highways that led to an air-port. Inside the dream, I knew I was dreaming, because even though wind was coming through the helicopter window, the hat worn by the man dispensing the cash didn’t move.

 

Wednesday

Ramón called his new boss to tell him that he had decided to fill his new position twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. Was that a problem? The first three calls went straight to a recorded message that said the voice mail was not enabled. On the fourth attempt, his boss, one Eliseo, answered:

“Let’s see if you’ve understood, Raúl.”

“Ramón.”

“Let’s see if you’ve understood, Ramón: Your job is to take care of the billboard. To make sure

María José Ferrada

the lamps aren’t filched. If that means you need to sleep up there, swing from a cloud, or hide in the bushes, in all honesty we don’t care.”

“Okay, thank you,” said Ramón, who considered what he had just heard a kind of municipal permit to reside in his new dwelling.

“Thank you, Raúl, thank you.”

I was eleven years old, and I didn’t need to be twelve to know the logical thing would have been to make that call before he moved to his new house, not after. That was eleven years of living in my building, in the housing complex, and in this world—long enough to realize that logic wasn’t of much concern to many people around here. Least of all to Ramón.

A contract? They wouldn’t sign a contract, but they would give him pay stubs. It was all the same to him, because in the PVC factory—as in all factories where the owner was the one ensuring compliance with labor regulations and paying the salaries—he’d had a contract that acknowledged only half the paycheck he collected. The rest? A “bit on the side.”

Lunch wouldn’t be provided, so he would have to cook it himself with the help of a gas cylinder and a camp stove. But this didn’t represent a major change either: As far as he knew, lunch was only ever provided in the factories that had more than a hundred workers. Or in the movies. Although, come to think of it, factory workers never appeared in movies. Police or emergency services workers were preferred.

Half a contract and lunch. He had lost more in the war, Ramón thought as he swept away the remains of the mosquitoes, crispy and suicidal, that acted contrary to all theories about survival instincts in the animal kingdom to launch themselves at the lamps every night like tiny kamikazes.

 

Thursday

The housing complex consists of a dozen buildings. Seen from afar—from the sky, for example—they look like enormous Lego bits. Each of them has four stories of four apartments. Depending on where the apartments are located, their respective windows overlook the stairwells, the walls, the sports court, or the highway. In moments of boredom, I’ve tried to count those windows. Owing to my failure to concentrate, I imagine, the result has always fallen somewhere between 300 and 330.

But the main thing is not the exact number of windows but the time of day when the neighbors—men, women, children—gaze through them. They do so out of nostalgia for the view they once had of the sun sinking between the hills, a view hidden by the billboards years ago. Or maybe, come to think of it, gazing at the horizon is just a signal announc-ing that another “goddamn day” is finally over. They have their reasons. The main thing is that looking out those windows was how the neighbors noticed there was a house inside the Coca-Cola billboard. From the outset, opinions were divided:

Some neighbors went “Ha, ha, ha” and deep down wanted to say—without actually taking the risk of doing so—that Ramón was a moron. Some neigh-bors asked, “What’s he doing up there?” trying to provoke a knowing response that would confirm the smirking individuals’ hypothesis: “Yes, he’s a moron.” A third, more serious group existed, and they went straight for a psychiatric diagnosis: “He’s mad.” “And what difference is there between a mad-man and a moron?” “Zilch.” When they reached that point, they would have come to a unanimous agreement if it weren’t for a few who chimed in at the last to say: “He can live wherever he feels like.” Those holding the majority view pretended they hadn’t heard. Finally, some neighbors expressed no opinion at all.

The history of humankind demonstrates that the people heading and closing that list—the ones who laugh, the ones who remain silent—turn out to be the most dangerous. But that history is not of too much concern to us here, so, for the moment, while faces are appearing at the building windows “just to take a look,” the truth of the matter is that there is nothing to worry about.

 

Friday

“How do you get up to the billboard?” I asked.

“Flying, Miguel, how else?” Paulina said as we climbed the same stairs where I sometimes sat to wait for her. She was joking, because really you could reach the billboard house via a ladder. In con-trast to the stairway that connected the building floors, the ladder could be blocked with two planks in the form of a cross whenever Ramón didn’t want to be bothered by the people down below.

“Are we the people down below?” I asked, curious.

“What do I know, ask him.” “Can we?”

“Can we what?”

“Go ask him.”

“No, Miguel, it’s dangerous.”

“Why?”

“Because as far as I’m aware, you don’t have wings, and if you fell you could split your head open.”

“Does Ramón have wings?”

Paulina went quiet. Ramón didn’t have wings, or if he did have a pair concealed beneath his shirt, then they were delicate wings that just about any wind could break.

“Can we go tomorrow?”

“You’re such a pain, Miguel.”

“Please, Pauli.”

 

Saturday and Sunday

By the time Sunday came to an end, I’d convinced Paulina to take me up the billboard, and I don’t think my persistence was the only reason she gave in. From the beginning, we knew Ramón wouldn’t be there long. Some things you just know, and they are there to remind you that:

some things can’t be explained
some things can’t be divided
into what ends well and what ends badly;
some things can’t be fixed

Like the billboard lamps that by the close of this story will end up broken. Or like everything up above that keeps turning: celestial bodies, cosmic matter. Sooner or later, they will cease to exist. Is that sad? “Sad, in practice, is your beer running out,” Ramón would have said. And anybody listening would have looked at him as they always did: with a mixture of contempt and admiration.

I’m not sure how many times I visited the bill-board. It must have been nine or ten. Sometimes with Paulina—one of the few people in whose company Ramón forgot his nostalgia for his mute childhood—other times alone, and a final time when the neighbors made me go, when Ramón was no longer there. I would have liked for there to have been more times, even maybe to have stayed and lived up there, but things don’t always turn out the way you hope. If anything, they turn out completely different. The main thing is, we had enough time to talk a little. And to be silent and notice how, at the hour when the cars slow down, the wind starts blowing harder.

Relationships between what happens above and what happens below. Ramón was sure they

existed. It had taken him thirty-six years to find the observatory he needed if he wanted to resume the search for silence he had interrupted when he was nine. An observatory, and a job that, without wasting his time, meant he could buy a good coat, and guaranteed him a bowl of rice. Beer, too.

There were threads, he explained. Delicate threads connecting things. That morning you happened to choose your blue shoes and at the exact moment when you were tying your laces, an astronomer discovered a couple of stars that, owing to their elevated surface temperature, shone with a bluish color. Had your choice helped, to some extent? In other words, could that discovery (a reminder: bluish stars) be the cosmic, spectral equivalent of your shoes? And, if that was the case, had you been right not to choose the black ones?

Relationships between what happens above and what happens below. You had to position yourself in an intermediary space—not too attached to the earth, not too close to the sky—in order to see them.

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Excerpted from How to Turn Into a Bird by María José Ferrada, translated by Elizabeth Bryer. Published by Tin House. Copyright © 2022 María José Ferrada. English Translation Copyright © 2022 Elizabeth Bryer.



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