Let’s face it, the matter of our every day lives is of strange stuff made. When viewed apprehensively, when the strings of family are stretched taut over the Nabokovian abyss to nestle a rocking cradle, or coddle an aging parent whose mind is failing, what’s normal can quickly turn downright bizarre. An everyday word, say tree, repeated several times in a row loses its meaning and confirms the inherent estrangement of language when its devoid of convention. Samanta Schweblin’s chiseled prose and snaking narrative lens focus attention on images that disturb the ordinary and displace meaning; Grandpa’s jogging suit string hangs like a noose from a tree of life that seems straight out of a Lynch movie. Grandma is naked too, playing sensually with the water hose, naked children disappear in the garden with the naked grandparents; a string has snapped, a hole in the safety net, authority steps in and the system is alerted but we find it speaks a language we don’t understand. Not all houses are nests. Schweblin’s tensely wrought voice echoes in ironic apposition the well-ordered closets of this summerhouse. Senility mirrors the innocence of childhood, invoking the mystery of the cycle of life: as above, so below. They dance, run, play, enjoy. It’s life in the middle that collapses, that’s where the holes appear, where language fails. Truth is hidden in these pages, it runs deeper than the image on the surface, belies this skin of normalcy, hides in the empty space of a tidy closet. As we love, we also transfer our fears, our primal hysteria, the sense of being alienated from our own lives. Foreigners will take our women, we will go mad like our parents, our children will disappear. And yet they look at us through the garden window, naked, and laugh and laugh and laugh.
Translated by: Kit Maude
“Where are your parents’ clothes?” Marga asks.
She crosses her arms and waits for me to answer. She knows that I don’t know and that I need her to ask another question. On the other side of the window, my parents are running naked around the back garden.
“It’s almost six, Javier,” Marga says. “What happens when Charley gets back from the supermarket with the children and they see their grandparents making fools of themselves?”
“Who’s Charley?” I ask.
I think I know who Charley is, he’s the big-new-man in my neurotic-ex-wife’s life, but I want her to say it to my face.
“They’re going to be mortified by their grandparents, that’s what’s going to happen.”
“They’re sick, Marga.”
She sighs. I count down from ten to keep myself patient and calm, to give Marga the time she needs. I say:
“You wanted the children to see their grandparents. You wanted me to bring my parents here because you thought that here, three hundred kilometers from my house, would be a good place to spend the vacation.”
“You said that they were better.”
Behind Marga, my father is spraying my mother with the hose. When he waters my mother’s breasts, my mother grabs her breasts. When he waters her ass, my mother grabs her ass.
“You know how they get when you take them out of their environment,” I say. “And the fresh air…”
Is my mother grabbing the parts that my father waters or is my father watering the parts that she grabs?
“Oho. So in addition to inviting you to spend a few days with your children, whom you haven’t seen for three months by the way, I have to guess how excited your parents are going to be?”
My mother runs to pick up Marga’s poodle and holds it up above her head as she spins around. I try to keep my eyes on Marga so she won’t turn to look at them.
“I want to leave all this madness behind, Javier.”
This madness, I think.
“And if that means you don’t see the children so much… I can’t keep exposing them to this.”
“They’re only naked, Marga.”
She walks to the front of the house. I follow her. Behind me, the poodle continues to spin around in the air. Before going outside, Marga fixes her hair and dress in the reflection from the glass in the front door. “Charley” is tall, strong and tough-looking. He looks like the guy from the News at Twelve after a bout of bodybuilding. My four year old daughter and my six year old son are wrapped around his arms like a pair of water wings. Charley gently sets them down, lowering his enormous gorilla torso to the earth, so he can be free to kiss Marga. Then he approaches me and for a moment I worry that he won’t be friendly. But he offers me his hand with a smile.
“Javier, this is Charley,” Marga says.
The children bounce into me, hugging my legs. I squeeze Charley’s hand hard, it feels as though he’s shaking my entire body up and down. The children let go.
“What do you think of the house, Javi?” says Charley, looking up behind me, as though they’d rented a castle.
Javi, I think. This madness, I think.
The poodle arrives, whining quietly with its tail between its legs. Marga picks him up and as he licks her face she wrinkles her nose and coos:
Charly regards them with his head tilted to one side, maybe he’s just trying to understand. Then she turns to him abruptly and asks:
“Where are the kids?”
“They’ll be out back,” Charley says. “In the garden.”
“But I don’t want them to see their grandparents like that.”
The three of us turn to look for them but they’re nowhere to be seen.
“See, Javier? This is exactly the kind of thing I want to avoid,” Marga says walking away. “Kids!” She looks at me. “Fucking hell…”
She walks around the house to the back garden. Charley and I exchange looks and go to follow her.
“How was the road?” Charley asks, miming a steering wheel going back and forth with one hand and changing gears with the other. His movements convey both excitement and stupidity.
“I don’t drive.”
He bends down to pick up some toys from the path and puts them to one side. Now he’s frowning. I’m scared to get to the garden and find my children and parents together. No, what I’m afraid of is Marga finding them together and the huge recriminatory scene that will follow. But Marga is standing alone in the middle of the garden, waiting for us with her hands balled up on her hips. We follow her into the house. We’re both her humble followers; it’s something I have in common with Charley, a relationship of sorts. Did he really enjoy the road during the journey?
“Kids!” Marga shouts up the staircase, she’s furious but she’s containing herself, maybe because Charley doesn’t know her well enough yet. She turns around and sits on a kitchen stool. “We need a drink, don’t you think?”
Charley gets a bottle of soda out of the refrigerator and pours three glasses. Marga takes a couple of sips and stares out into the garden for a moment.
“This is wrong,” she gets up. “This is very wrong. They could be doing anything,” now she does look at me.
“Let’s have another look,” I say, but she’s already going out into the back garden.
She comes back a few moments later.
“They’re not there,” she says. “My God, Javier, they’re not there.”
“Yes they are, Marga. They have to be around here somewhere.”
Charley goes out the front door, crosses the front garden and follows the car tracks leading out to the road. Marga goes upstairs and calls them from the top floor. I go outside and walk around the house. I pass the open garage, which is full of toys and plastic buckets and spades. I see the kids’ inflatable dolphin through the foliage of a pair of trees, dangling from a branch, lynched with a string taken from one of my parents’ sweatpants. Marga appears in one of the windows and our gazes meet for a second. Is she just looking for the kids or my parents too? I go into the house through the kitchen door. Charley comes in through the main door at the same time and reports from the living room:
“They’re not out in front.”
His face isn’t friendly any more. Now he has a couple of lines across his forehead and his movements are exaggerated, as though Marga were controlling him: shifting rapidly from rest to an active state, he bends down under the table, looks behind a wardrobe and peers under the stairs, as though the only way to find the children is to take them by surprise. I’m forced to follow him around and I can’t concentrate on my own search.
“They’re not outside,” Marga says. “The car, Charley, the car.”
I wait for an instruction for me but none is forthcoming. Charley goes outside once more and Marga goes back up to the bedrooms. I follow her. She goes into the one apparently being occupied by Simon, so I look in Lina’s room. Then we swap rooms and look again. I hear her swearing when I’m under Simon’s bed.
“Fucking, fucking hell,” she says, so I assume that it’s not because she found the children. Maybe she’s found my parents?
We search the bathroom together and then the attic after the main bedroom. Marga opens the closets and pushes aside some of the clothes hanging from the hangers. It’s quite bare and very tidy. It’s a summer house, I say to myself, but then I think back to my wife and children’s real home, the house that used to be my house, and I realize that this was how things were in this family; everything was always bare and tidy. You never had to push clothes aside to find something. Charley comes back into the house, we meet in the living room.
“They’re not in the car,” he says to my wife.
“This is your parents’ fault,” Marga says.
She pushes one of my shoulders furiously from behind.
“It’s your fucking fault. Where the hell are my children?” she shouts and runs out into the garden again.
She calls out on one side of the house and then the other.
“What’s behind the hedges?” I ask Charley.
He looks at me and then back to my wife, who’s still shouting.
“Does anyone live behind the hedges, are there any neighbors?” I ask.
“I don’t think so. I don’t know. There are some huts. Lots of them. The houses are very big.”
His equivocation is perfectly reasonable but I can’t help but think that he’s the stupidest man I’ve ever met in my life.
“I’m going out to the front,” Marga says, pushing between us. “Simon!”
“Dad!” I shout walking behind Marga. “Mom!”
Marga is a few meters ahead of me when she stops suddenly and picks something up from the ground. It’s kind of blue and she holds it from one end as though it were a dead animal. It’s Lina’s sweater. She turns to look at me. She’s about to say something, she’s going to swear hard at me again, but then she sees more clothing and walks toward it. I sense Charley’s hulking shadow looming up behind me. Marga picks up Lina’s fuchsia t-shirt and then some sneakers and then Simon’s shirt.
There’s more in the path, but Marga stops suddenly and turns to us.
“Call the police, Charley. Call the police now.”
“Ladybug, don’t overreact…” Charley says.
Ladybug, I think.
“Call the police, Charley.”
Charley turns around and walks quickly back to the house. Marga picks up more clothing. I follow her. She picks up another item and stops in front of the final one. Simon’s swim shorts. They’re yellow and a little crumpled. Marga doesn’t do anything. Maybe she can’t bend down to pick up the shorts; maybe she doesn’t have the strength. She has her back to me and it looks as though her body is starting to tremble. I approach slowly, trying not to upset her. The swim shorts are very small. The size of one of my hands; four fingers in one leg, a thumb in the other.
“They’ll be here in a minute,” Charley says coming from the house. “They’re sending the patrol car.”
“You have no idea what I’m going to do to you and your family…” Marga says coming toward me.
I pick up the swim shorts and Marga jumps on top of me. I try to stay upright but I lose my balance in an attempt to protect my face from her slapping. Charley is immediately on the scene, trying to drag us apart. The police car stops at the door and blares its siren once. Two policemen get out quickly and hurry over to help Charley.
“My children are gone,” Marga says. “My children are gone,” she repeats and points at the shorts in my hand.
“Who is this man?” the policeman asks. “Are you the husband?” they ask Charley.
We try to explain. In spite of my first impression, Marga and Charley don’t seem to blame me. They just want the children.
“My children are lost with a pair of crazy people,” Marga says.
But the policemen are only interested in why we were fighting. Charley’s chest starts to swell and for a moment I’m worried that he’s going to attack the policemen. I let my hands fall to my side in resignation, just as Marga did with me a second ago, but all I achieve is to attract the second policeman’s eyes to the swaying shorts, which he stares at in alarm.
“What are you looking at?” Charley asks.
“What?” the policeman asks.
“He’s been staring at the shorts since he got out of the car. Could you please let someone know that two children have disappeared?”
“My children,” Marga says again. She stands in front of the policemen and says the words over and over again, maybe because she’s trying to get them to concentrate on what’s important. “My children, my children, my children.”
“When did you last see them?” The other policeman asks finally.
“They’re not in the house,” Marga says. “They took them.”
“Who took them, ma’am?”
I shake my head and try to interrupt but the other policeman steps forward.
“Do you mean there’s been a kidnapping?”
“They might be with their grandparents,” I say.
“They’re with two naked old people,” Marga says.
“Who do these clothes belong to, ma’am?”
“Are you telling me that both the children and the adults are naked?”
“Please,” Marga’s voice breaks.
For the first time, I wonder how dangerous it might be for your children to be wandering around naked with your parents.
“They might be hiding,” I say. “We can’t rule that out yet.”
“And who are you?” one policeman asks as his colleague radios the station.
“I’m her husband,” I say.
So now the policeman looks at Charley. Marga turns to face him again, I’m worried that she’s going to contradict me but she says:
“Please: my children, my children.”
The first policeman puts down the radio and comes over:
“Parents into the car, the gentleman,” he points at Charley, “will stay here in case they come home.”
We stand staring at him.
“Into the car, come on, we have to move quickly.”
“No way,” Marga says.
“Ma’am, please, we need to make sure that they’re not going out to the road.”
Charley pushes Marga toward the patrol car and I follow her. We get in and the car is already moving when I close the door. Charley is standing, staring at us, and I wonder whether he drove those three hundred exciting kilometers with my children sitting in the back. The patrol car backs into the field and we set off toward the road at top speed. Just then I turn back to look at the house. I see them, the four of them: behind Charley, beyond the front garden, my parents and my children, naked and soaking wet in front of the living room window. My mother is rubbing her breasts against the glass and Lina is imitating her, staring at her in fascination. They’re shouting with joy but no-one can hear them. Simon is copying them both with his ass cheeks. Someone grabs the shorts out of my hand and I hear Marga swear at the policeman. The radio makes a noise and they shout the words “adults and minors” twice, “kidnapping” once and “naked” three times down the line, while my ex-wife pounds on the back of the driver’s seat with her fists. So I say to myself Keep your mouth shut, don’t say a word, because I can see my father looking toward us: his old, sun-tanned body, his flaccid penis dangling between his legs. He gives a triumphant smile and appears to recognize me. He hugs my mother and my children, slowly, affectionately, without peeling anyone off the glass.
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