In the Distance

Hernan Diaz

October 3, 2017 
The following is from Hernan Diaz’s novel, In The Distance. The story of a young Swedish boy, separated from his brother, becomes a man; the man, despite himself, becomes a legend and outlaw. A tale that defies the conventions of genre, offering a probing look at the stereotypes that populate our past and a portrait of radical foreignness. Hernán Díaz is the author of Borges, Between History and Eternity. He is the Associate Director of the Hispanic Institute at Columbia University

Two men escorted Håkan through the empty barroom and led him upstairs to a room adjacent to the woman’s. A bed, a barred window, a bucket of pine-smelling water. He was ordered to strip and wash. When his efforts were deemed too timid, one of the men grabbed a brush and scrubbed him down vigorously. The other man left the room, returned with two bundles, and threw a new suit of clothes on the bed and some rags to wipe up the soapy water on the floor. Then they both left, bolting the door behind them.

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Håkan got into bed, his skin burning from the cold, the bristles, and the pine oil. Underneath the pain, he sensed the vastness of the plains weighing on his heart. But further down, in a part of himself new to him, he was, to his surprise, content and at peace. It felt good to be in bed, hurting, alone. And it felt good to slide into the deepest sadness he had experienced since losing Linus. His grief was indistinguishable from his ease—both had the same texture and temperature. Comfort and gloom, he realized, came from the combination of cold water and the scent of pine resin. He had not felt that tingling since his ice baths in the lake back in Sweden. And that smell. Håkan and Linus, following their father’s lead, would crack a hole open on a safe spot (the ice had to be thin enough for the ax but thick enough to bear them), plunge into the lead-colored water, stay afloat with calm semicircular kicks, holding their breath for as long as possible to keep buoyant, and then climb out of the hole, imitating their father’s relaxed indifference to the cold and suppressing their impulse to run to the shore, whose knuckle-shaped pebbles forced them to proceed swinging their arms like wire walkers, until they reached the pine tree under which they found their clothes safe from the snow that was netted in the intricate, angular weave of perennial needles.

The coarse sheets rubbed pleasantly against his skin. He wondered whether his brother had also spent months without sleeping in a bed. He tried to conceive the distance separating him from New York, where he knew Linus was waiting for him, but could think only of that infinite extension in terms of time—the countless days, the many seasons it would take him to cross the continent. For the first time, Håkan was almost glad to have been forced to go on this journey: after his long trip and all the unimaginable adventures that lay ahead, he would arrive a grown man, and, for once, surprise his brother with tales of his own.

A clinking of glasses and cutlery came from below, together with the voices of three or four men talking calmly. Håkan got up and inspected his new clothes. Because he had worn mended hand-me-downs all his life (clothes received from Linus, who had inherited them from their father, who, in turn, had got them from some unknown source), he unfolded the crisp trousers and shirt with reverence. Despite its stiffness, the fabric was soft and downy. He put the collarless shirt to his nose. It had a scent he had never smelled before, a scent he could describe only as new. He got dressed. The navy trousers did not quite reach his ankles, and the white sleeves ended about two inches before his wrists, but otherwise the clothes fit him perfectly. In his new outfit, he felt, with an intensity that not even the perpetual plains had yet managed to convey, that he was in America.

He placed his hand on the window. The sun-blasted desert vibrated on the glass. More clatter came from below. It was getting crowded. Individual voices were no longer discernible in the constant masculine rumble punctuated now and again by a burst of laughter or a fist hitting a table. The sun was setting discreetly, and it was impossible to tell at what point its last dull echoes were replaced by the moon’s insufficient efforts. Downstairs, two men seemed to be having a mock argument—the entire room cheered and booed in turns, and the debate ended in general laughter. Håkan went back to bed. Someone started playing an instrument he had never heard before—the tickling legs of a happy insect. The patrons stomped along, and had they not been all men, Håkan would have sworn he heard the shuffling feet of twirling couples. The shadows in his room slowly shifted with the moon. He dozed off.

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A scream beneath his window woke him up. A drunkard was flogging his horse, and with every lash, the man gave a woeful cry, as if he, rather than the mare, were the one getting whipped. The horse, snorting briefly with each blow, shone with blood and was visibly in pain, but took the beating with poignant dignity. Finally, the man collapsed, sobbing, and his friends took him and the beast away.

Only a few people remained in the bar. They talked quietly and sporadically. Perhaps they were playing a game of cards. The moon had rolled over to the other side of Clangston’s single street and was now out of sight. Håkan urinated soundlessly into the pail with the pine-scented water. Four or five men left, and with that, the muted conversation downstairs ceased. Someone started sweeping, and glasses were put away. Then, a man coughed, and that was the last sound to come up from the bar. Håkan sat quietly on the bed, afraid of the rustling sound of his new clothes.

Nothing interrupted the mineral silence of the desert. In its complete stillness, the world seemed solid, as if made of one single dry block. The sound of footsteps came up the stairs and toward Håkan’s room.

He stood up, more out of politeness than fear. The door opened. He recognized two of the men from the convoy. They told him to follow them down the corridor, to the threshold of a dark room. The men showed Håkan in and gently shut the door behind him.

The drowsy smell of incense, wilted flowers, and bubbling sugar saturated the air. The thick-lipped woman sat by the window. She turned the knob of a faint lamp, and her face and the room lit up with a trembling glow. She wet her glossy lips, slowly rubbed them together, and rearranged herself on a small skirted chair. Her makeup was heavier than usual, and there was more glitter on her cheekbones and her bosom. Coiling around her smooth neck, her amber hair poured down her chest and pooled on the finely embroidered corset. Still looking at Håkan, she cocked her head, and her left eye disappeared under a wave of hair.

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The room was beclouded with ornaments and heavy brocade drapes. Wherever he looked, Håkan saw an ivory statuette or an old bibelot, a fading Gobelin or some gewgaw. Gleams of gold and hints of crimson came trembling out of the darkness, blurred by waves of gauze and chintz. Layers of curtains, festoons, and fringes smothered every window. There were silver-framed mirrors, knickknacks, and gilded books with brass clasps on little marquetry tables with spindle legs, and porcelain figurines, music boxes, and bronze busts on marble consoles. Diptychs, cameos, enamel eggs encrusted with jewels, and all other sorts of baubles were on dim display behind the beveled glass of convoluted cabinets. A case with a greening saber, dusty epaulets, ribboned medals, wax-sealed letters, frayed aiguillettes, and an embossed snuffbox occupied a place of honor.

The woman shut her eyes and nodded softly but gravely, indicating that Håkan should approach. He stood in front of her, embarrassed by his visible erection. When he tried to cover his crotch, she gently took his hands in hers, which were gemmed, cold, and unused. From a little side table, she picked up a pair of cuffs and secured them to Håkan’s sleeves with expert care, fastening them with gold cuff links studded with rubies. Håkan looked down, red-faced, pretending to be immune to the woman’s touch. Once done, she proceeded with a starched collar. She pointed to the floor while raising her chin. Håkan bent his knees. She repeated the gesture. Håkan kneeled. Frowning and pursing her lips, she secured the collar to the shirt. Her hands touched the back of his neck, and he felt ashamed of his goose skin. He pulled back timidly, but she held his head firmly and close to her breast, looking over his shoulder while working. After attaching the collar, she moved on to a silk cravat. Håkan could hear her breathe while she tied it and then pierced it through with a golden pin crowned with a red stone. She pushed him back with gentle firmness, looked him over, and took a velvet jacket from a valet stand. She bent over and fitted it on Håkan, slowly, ceremoniously, paying attention to how his body gradually filled the fabric. Once again, the sleeves were too short, but the chest and shoulders fit perfectly. She touched his arms, his ribs, and his back, as if confirming that the jacket was indeed full of him, and then stood up straight. Håkan was still kneeling. She caressed his hair and pulled his head toward her, indicating he should rest it on her stomach. Håkan’s arms hung along his body. She took a small step back, without letting go of Håkan’s head, thus forcing it to slide down to her lap. The wilted flowers, now laced with sweat, became more intense. They both remained in that position for a long time, hearing and feeling each other breathe. Håkan’s face was wet from the moist heat of his exhalations caught in the laces and the velvet. At last, she let him go. The room got colder. His hair was glued to his forehead. She took his hands and, with her chin, signaled him to get up. They walked to a divan on the periphery of the circle lit by the lantern, and, with a gesture, she asked him to lie down. She undid his trousers, gathered her dress around her waist, and mounted him. The sun was coming out. Håkan felt that he was gliding upward, into a new, lonelier region. The woman looked down at him, and, as dawn penciled dusty traces of light across the room, she shut her eyes, smiled, and opened her lips, revealing black, gleaming, toothless gums, streaked with bulging veins of pus, and poured her breath, heavy with the scent of burned sugar, over him with a moan.

Most mornings, between daybreak and sunrise, Håkan was escorted back to his room after spending some time with the woman. Their encounters were always silent (she communicated her wishes through subtle yet assertive gestures or by bending and molding his body) and without fail revolved around clothes—she dressed, undressed, and dressed him again in uniforms, blouses, tailcoats, sashes, breeches, gloves, pantaloons, knickers, and waistcoats, and decked him with numerous accessories. These fittings took up most of their time. She took meticulous care in getting Håkan into the clothes, following each limb as it filled each hole and then, as she had done the first night, clutching the sleeves, feeling the chest, grasping the legs, and pressing the back, confirming that the fabric that had been spectrally limp moments ago was now firm with living flesh. She then arranged a long series of details—studs, pins, spats, rings, and some final element, a small relic handled with reverence, which invariably came from one of the glass cabinets. When she had finished, she stepped back and examined the results without ever looking at Håkan’s face, after which she modeled him into some ordinary yet precise position (usually, she had him stand in the middle of the room, looking straight ahead with his chin parallel to the floor, feet shoulder-width apart, with his hands at a very particular distance from his thighs), which she asked him to hold for a long time, until she signaled him to kneel down and rest his head on her lap. They remained that way until dawn. She did not always take him to the divan afterwards, but generally demanded to be pleasured in one way or another before releasing him.

Back in his room, Håkan washed his face with the pine-oil water left over from his nightly scrubbings, trying to wipe out the impression of burned sugar. It was lodged underneath his forehead and eyes, smeared on his palate, and coated on the walls of his throat. Had the smell merely rubbed off the woman or were his own gums now rotting, shedding their teeth, and emanating that putrid perfume? He tapped on his incisors and tried to wiggle his molars to make sure they were firm. Had he known the word for it, he would have asked for a mirror.

He spent his days staring out at the desert, hoping Linus would feel his gaze through the osseous void. After looking at it for a long time, the plain became vertical, a surface to be climbed rather than traversed, and he wondered what he would find on the other side if he made it all the way up and straddled the sepia wall stretching into the drained, dim sky. No matter how hard he scanned the horizon, all he could see were rippling mirages and the phosphorescent specks his exhausted eyes made pop in and out of the emptiness. He pictured himself out there, running, insect-like, in the distance. Even if he ever managed to escape and somehow outdistance his mounted pursuers, how would he make it all by himself through that vast barren expanse? All he knew was that New York lay east and that he, therefore, had to follow the sunrise. But the journey without help or supplies seemed impossible. He had stopped trying to push out the bars from his window frame a long time ago.

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There were three books in his room. He knew one of them was the Bible, and had devoutly put it under his pillow. He had never had the chance to inspect a book at his leisure before. Several times a day, he went through the other two from beginning to end, studying the indecipherable characters. The crowded yet orderly signs brought him a sense of calm after staring at the blank expanse of the desert. He would choose a letter and, with his finger, map the patterns its recurrence created on the page.

The room trembled with heat when smitten by the sun. Håkan often fainted and sometimes, without knowing how long he had been unconscious, was woken by a hand slapping his face. He was taken to the outhouse twice a day, shortly after his meals, which were given to him in his room. Before dusk, the bathwater and a fresh change of clothes were brought in. The first patrons usually arrived at the bar as he finished scrubbing. And most nights, after the last customer had left, a guard unbolted his door and led him to the woman. On occasion, with no regularity, he was left alone, and he eventually understood that he would not be taken to the woman’s room if dawn came before his guard. These were the only events that vaguely organized his existence, which took place in an elastic present that kept on stretching without the slightest distortion and without ever promising to snap.


From In the Distance. Used with permission of Coffee House Press. Copyright © 2017 by Hernan Diaz.

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