There is no justifying our optimism, there are no signs that encourage us to believe things could get better. Our optimism grows by itself, like a weed, after a kiss, a talk, a good wine, though we have very little of that left. Surrender is like that, too: the poison of defeat springs up and grows during a bad day, with the clarity of a bad day, spurred by little things that, in better circumstances, wouldn’t have hurt us and yet, if the final blow happens to come right when we’re at the end of our strength, manages to annihilate us. Suddenly, something that we wouldn’t even have noticed before destroys us, like a trap laid by a hunter whose skill outpaces our own, a trap we didn’t pay attention to because we were distracted by the lure. And yet, why deny that we ourselves, while we could, hunted in the same way, wielding traps, lures, and grotesque but highly effective camouflage.
Anyone who looks carefully at this house’s garden can easily tell that it’s seen better days, that the drained pool isn’t out of place with the buzz of airplanes that punish us nightly, not only here on this property but throughout the valley. When she comes to bed, I try to calm her, but the truth is that I know something is collapsing and we won’t be able to build anything new in its place. Each bomb in this war rips open a hole we won’t be able to fill, I know it and she knows it, although we pretend otherwise when it’s time to go to sleep, searching for a peace we no longer find, for a time like before. On some nights, in order to dream better, we remember.
In that other time, we enjoyed what we thought would be our forever. The cool waters of the lake—we called it a lake, but it was more like a big pond—not only refreshed us on hot days, but also offered all sorts of games and safe adventures. That last thing, safe adventures, is without a doubt a contradiction we were unaware of at the time.
We had a small rowboat and the boys spent hours in it pretending to be pirates, and sometimes, on summer afternoons, I’d take her out on the water, as we say, and we’d each get lost in our own thoughts, not talking much, but serene.And despite the war—or thanks to the war—we carry on, good morning, good night, one day after another, just like that, one kiss after another, against all logic.
Yesterday a letter arrived from Augusto, our son, our soldier, and it informs us that a month ago he was still alive, though that doesn’t mean he isn’t dead today. The joy the letter brings us also feeds our fear. Ever since the pulse signals were cut off by the provisional government’s decree, we’ve gone back to waiting for the mail carrier, the way our grandparents did. There is no other form of communication. At least we have month-old news of Augusto, it’s been almost a year since we’ve had word of Pablo. When they left for the front, the pulse signals still kept us constantly in touch with their heartbeats; she said it was almost like having them inside, like when she’d felt them living in her womb. Now we’re forced to dream them into being, in silence. War, for parents, is not the same thing as war for the men who go fight, it’s a different war. Our only job is to wait. Meanwhile, the garden despairs and dies, worn out. She and I, on the other hand, get up every morning ready and willing.
Our love, in facing this war, is growing stronger.
It’s hard to say now how much we loved each other before; obviously, the kisses at our wedding were sincere, but that sincerity is a part of what we were then, and time has clearly turned us into something else. This very morning, I walked the property to confirm yet again that this place barely resembles what our house used to be. The lake is almost dry; someone, likely the enemy, has dammed the mountain streams. The shores of the lake, once as green as the jungle, are withering.
War doesn’t change anything on its own, it only reminds us, with its noise, that everything changes.
And despite the war—or thanks to the war—we carry on, good morning, good night, one day after another, just like that, one kiss after another, against all logic. The water boils, the heirloom teapot with its crocheted cozy, the last teabags…the little we have left boils, is protected, goes on. Something dies and lives between us, something nameless that we decide, for good reason, to ignore. Passion either ignores misfortune or dies. We’ve made choices; one of them is not to be alone. To love is to defy any devil that tells us it’s possible not to love.
Luckily, faced with the devil, the things that are close to us multiply.
I can talk about her hands because I know them, because they’re near me. Nothing can be said about what’s too far away. The boy cries in the basement, and he isn’t our son but we try to care for him as best we can. We like having something to care for, on that at least we agree, despite the garden’s premature death. The child arrived in the summer, more than six months ago, we don’t know his age although we think he’s about nine years old, we’ve had children and their various heights are marked in pencil on the wall of their old bedroom. We used these measurements of our own children to estimate this stranger’s age, though we know it’s not a precise calculation. Nor is he our son, this boy we’re measuring now, but he showed up here alone and we take care of him.
He was wounded when he arrived, which was part of why we started caring for him.
We’re not virtuous, I know, but that makes us less merciless. Also, since our own sons left home, we’ve had plenty of space. We hide him in the basement because we still haven’t decided what to do with him. War takes many things away and at the same time offers possibilities, which we weren’t used to having, and for that reason we put off saying yes or no to the options that present themselves. People who are prepared have no fear, but we do, or at least I do, I wouldn’t dare speak for her. Fear is personal, to each their own. In any case, we don’t believe we’ve stolen a child, but prefer to believe we’ve taken him in.
The boy, for his part, still hasn’t said a word. His silence unsettles and consoles us at the same time, we wait for his first word and we fear it.
And what if the first thing he says isn’t thank you? What will we do with him then?
Sometimes he cries at night as we fuck, but we don’t stop, in the old days we also managed to fuck despite the cries of our own children. We aren’t crazy, that’s how people conceive. It’s the natural course of things. Life doesn’t threaten life, but stimulates it. Yesterday I gave our prisoner a chess set; we call him that, prisoner, because we haven’t given him a name, but his door has no lock. He could leave if he wanted to, just as he came here because he wanted to. Yet, he stays. I suppose the will that brought him here is the same will that keeps him here.
We, in turn, feed him well from the little we have. He doesn’t like bananas, that much we know, he’s no monkey, potatoes with sausage drive him wild, he’s got a great temperament, he licks his fingers with gusto. It’s satisfying to watch a child eat, even if he isn’t your own.
He strikes us as a good kid even though we don’t know where the hell he comes from. If all goes smoothly and he behaves himself, maybe we’ll move him upstairs one day, to our sons’ room. She insists on doing it right now, but I’m being the prudent one, his true behavior remains to be seen. It also remains to be seen whether our actual sons will survive this war and need their room back. Everything, in fact, remains to be seen, and this is my only consolation. If I’ve learned one thing from watching our garden die, it’s that neither the good nor the bad stops to consider our plans, nor to appreciate our efforts, it simply happens.
She was the first to spot the child, she saw him walking down the hill and watched him enter our garden, bleeding but not making a sound. She brought him inside, dressed his wounds, gave him our children’s small clothes that she’d kept carefully folded away, she bathed him and cooked dinner, and she made him a bed in the little playroom in the basement. I suggested that we call the police, and she said no. She preferred a child over an investigation. She knows exactly what she does and doesn’t want.
That was more than six months ago, but the kid is still silent, I’d like to think he’s comfortable. He’s well behaved, sometimes he throws things while he’s playing, though he still hasn’t broken anything valuable. He doesn’t look like our sons, he’s dark and thin, and ours were and are, at least until their deaths are confirmed, blonde and hardy. It’s strange, but his presence feels more and more familiar to us. He watches television with us, we avoid sad movies, he likes comedies, he laughs. He seems happy and he eats well, the truth is that we have no complaints.
She strokes his hair when he falls asleep on the sofa, and he lets her, later I carry him to bed and change his clothes. I don’t dare give him a good night kiss the way I did with our boys because, when it comes down to it, however likeable this kid may be, he isn’t ours.
This morning the zone agent came to inquire about our situation. It seems the war is dragging on, that bombs are falling closer to us every day, he’s worried that we won’t be able to hold out; naturally, we’ve lied. Or maybe not, maybe this boy is revitalizing our capacity to hold out. The pantry is almost empty. We have little tea left and even less coffee, we drink wine in smaller glasses each day, the vegetables are gone, though we do have string beans, the sausage and chorizo and potatoes can last us another two weeks, the canned fried tomatoes another month, milk is no problem, the two cows left in the region are surviving the war miraculously if you consider the dryness of the grass; bread hasn’t come since the baker was arrested, they say he wrote up secret reports, and that he gave the enemy regular news about all of us and even hid an underground pulse unit. Impossible to know for sure, and a shame in any case because he was a good baker. Since the war broke out, suspicions have done more damage than bullets.
The zone agent has warned us that there will be an evacuation drill next week, we don’t know what we’ll do with the child, not during the drill nor during an actual evacuation if there is one down the line. Before the war we never thought we’d leave this house, without saying so I think she and I both intended to die here. Now everything is different. We’ll have to make other plans.
Our greatest fun is when we chase the boy after his bath; he runs, wrapped in a towel, slipping on the wood floor, but he keeps going, and she and I laugh as we run behind him holding his pajamas, she with the pants, I with the shirt. It had been a long time since we’d been happy. I think she likes to watch me run like a madman, just as I like to see her smiling again.
When he’s finally dressed, with his pajamas on, we turn on the television and pull up the wool blanket; the coal is gone and, despite the fireplace, it’s cold. We huddle together, the three of us, and watch comedies, we all like comedies. While he laughs, we put his socks on his feet. All there is left on television now is comedies and dramas, and sad songs or military marches, news and all the rest of it was taken away when the pulse network stopped, when WRIST communications were permanently cut off. Before that, by looking at your inner wrist you could know, if you wanted, all about what was happening in the world, and, more importantly, you could see and hear your loved ones in real time and even follow the rhythm of their heartbeats, but the blue light that used to cover the skin of our wrists has been turned off for some time. Now we have no choice but to laugh along with comedies on television, even though we’ve already seen them a million times. It’s something. At least the kid is amused.
When the boy has fallen asleep, she and I go to bed, exhausted, arms around each other, ready to surrender to sleep, just like before. We aren’t doing anything wrong, the child arrived alone, nobody brought him and we like to think he doesn’t belong to anyone.
From Surrender by Ray Lorigo. Translation copyright © 2020 by Carolina de Robertis. Reprinted with permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.