Life on Grímsey Island

Juan Gabriel Vásquez

July 21, 2015 
The following is from “Life on Grímsey Island,” a story collected in Juan Gabriel Vásquez’s Lovers on All Saints’ Day. Vásquez’s books include the 2014 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award winner The Sound of Things Falling, as well as The Informers and The Secret History of Costaguana. His books have been published in twenty six languages worldwide, and he is the recipient of the Prix Roger Caillois in France and the Alfaguara Prize in Spain. He lives in Bogotá.

From the second floor Oliveira could see the street was beginning to show signs of life. A green and blue bus went past, the white interior lights still on, and stopped to drop off a passenger. The door opened and a woman of about fifty stepped down, her hair freshly washed, straightening her dress with her hands. Her day was just starting. Oliveira’s eyes followed her until she turned the corner, thirty meters beyond the door to the bakery.

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He didn’t want to think he’d failed her. He wondered if Agatha had thought of him before or after opening her veins, or if she hadn’t considered his presence at all, if after all he’d been nothing more than that evening’s one-night stand. Maybe he had failed her. Maybe he’d had in his hands and in his voice the way to prevent Agatha’s death. But how could he have imagined the effects a word, a subtle lie, might have had on her? Maybe Agatha had made the decision long before that night, and nothing Oliveira might have said would have changed it. Maybe his presence was only required as a witness. He wondered if that was true: if everything had a human cause and another random one, if destiny existed. He also wondered if Agatha had crossed herself, if she’d listened for one last time to her daughter’s voice, if a woman who has decided to die allows herself the luxury of sentimentalism or the nostalgia of faith. A man holding a little boy’s hand walks past on the other side of the street. The boy carries a knapsack wider than his own back. They do not know that here, in this house, so close to them, a woman has suffered. It’s good that they don’t know, especially the boy. “From seeing her arrive at this hour,” the baker had said. Agatha formed part of a street’s waking routine. The baker, the boy, Agatha. Three islands, and Oliveira just another island. Maybe communication between two people was never possible, or it was possible but imperfect, and its imperfections were capable of ending a life. There was no way of knowing. Two big drops burst against the windowpane, almost at once. Then it began to rain. Oliveira felt cold in his eyes and a sort of uncomfortable sting. It was lucky it was raining because people who looked at his eyes would think of raindrops before anything else.

His knee hurt. But, no matter how hard he tried, he could not remember when he’d banged it. He turned around, looked at the bathroom door, and didn’t remember having chosen to close it, either.

“Coffee,” said Oliveira. “A strong one.”

He was sitting beside the window. On the table was Agatha’s magazine, open in the middle. Beside the magazine, folded neatly, was the map of the world. Oliveira had taken it down off the wall and as he pulled out one of the thumbtacks he’d torn the flesh under his fingernail. The baker spoke to him from behind the counter.

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“Have you made up your mind yet, monsieur?”


“Whether dawn breaks before or after. Look, chérie, it’s him. Monsieur wanted to know about the sun, what I told you about.”

 Ah oui,” said the woman. She had freckles on her rosy cheeks and her hair up in an impeccable bun. “My husband told me about that, it’s very interesting. So many things out there and one never stops to think about them. It’s . . . it’s unfair.”

“Monsieur arrived with madame,” said the baker. His wife knew immediately who he meant.

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“That’s very good.” She smiled. “Yes, definitely. This is good news.”

Then the woman went into a room where two columns of baking sheets guarded the door frame like shelves. She took a tray from one and put it on the other. Cest une bonne nouvelle, she said.

“I knew it. One day someone just had to come.” The baker placed a cup of coffee on top of the folded map.

He lowered his voice and leaned forward, a man peering over a precipice. His tone was more than cordial: it was warm, almost affectionate.

“Monsieur is well? Do you feel ill? My wife can bring you something if your eyes are stinging, monsieur.”

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“I’m fine. Thank you.”

“It’s probably the pollution. The clouds bring us all the pollution from Paris. It’s very hard on the eyes.”

“Of course.”

“Drops, monsieur. In any pharmacy. You shouldn’t drive with your eyes so irritated.”

“You’re right. Excuse me. I have to get going.”

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“Monsieur is traveling? Will you be away long?”

“Not that it’s any of your business, but yes, I do have to make a trip.”

The baker did not insist. Oliveira had been rude to him and on his face appeared a glimmer of disenchantment. Maybe he’d been too abrupt, thought Oliveira, and regretted it, but it was too late now. He was grateful for the coffee, the bitter taste on his tongue. It was still raining. Oliveira couldn’t wait any longer. He put a five-franc coin in the ashtray and collected up his papers in one hand.

“Monsieur doesn’t have to leave,” said the baker. “You can stay without ordering anything.”

“Say good-bye to your wife for me,” said Oliveira. “Good luck, monsieur.”

“Thank you. Could you do me a favor?”

“Yes, monsieur.”

“Take Agatha . . . take the lady a bag of coffee. A gift from me. She’s sleeping right now, but take it to her later.”

The baker smiled. He looked at Agatha’s house and then looked back at Oliveira.

“Yes, monsieur. With pleasure, monsieur.”

The van was resting beside the curb like an anesthetized horse. To Oliveira it seemed like a useless, obsolete, almost despicable machine. I’ve waited with you, Agatha, I’ve accompanied you to the end of the night. He started the engine and waited for the thin layer of ice on the windshield to melt. His eyes began to water and the interior of the vehicle was a hazy vision. Oliveira squeezed his eyelids and one fat tear fell onto the steering wheel. Then others formed in his eyes, as if they were trying to dissolve his perception of things or at least delay his departure. He was surprised by an idea: if his life ended now—if a drunk driver plowed into him from behind and broke his neck, if a man driven crazy by grief came out shooting randomly—his years of living would have served for nothing. Who would he be, who might he have been? He would be the man who abandoned the only land he could call his own; he would be the man who allowed a woman to die.

He didn’t do any calculations but knew he was running late. He had to get going, continue to make his way south, past the Pyrenees and drive several more hours after that. He had two days ahead of him. After that, his parents’ city, whose name had no meaning whatsoever and in which Oliveira had never lived, would welcome him. He couldn’t imagine his future life, or what his friends would be like or what they’d look like. But he would begin to live a different life and was somehow liberated and ready to respond to the change. There would be a woman. Oliveira would look at her every once in a while and think: You are her. I’ve chosen you. You’ve chosen me. But that woman didn’t have a face, and wasn’t expecting him, and could not know that her life, in that instant, was beginning to be different because Oliveira was traveling toward her. He himself would be until the moment of arrival somewhat uncertain, a malleable substance, vulnerable to words and weather and the portent of love, a body in movement across a map, less alone than before, crossing meridians.



From “Life on Grímsey Island” from LOVERS ON ALL SAINTS’ DAY. Published by arrangement with Riverhead Books, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2015 by Juan Gabriel Vásquez.

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