Nina MeleroSpainWriting2011
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UNESCO-Aschberg Fellow

My stay at the Civitella Ranieri Foundation in August 2011 enabled me to write a whole novel from start to finish. My previous publications were mainly poetry or collections of short stories, and one of the principal reasons for this is that my life and work in London do not allow me the time and continuity necessary to concentrate on longer texts.

 

In those 6 weeks at Civitella I wrote more than I had written in the past two years – I still cannot believe it, but I completed a 220 page novel which I am revising and editing at the moment. Writing and writing for hours on end, undisturbed, concentrating on the task, calm but excited, inspired by what is probably the most beautiful country in the world and surrounded by people from whom I could learn something new every day -at Civitella I experienced something that, if not pure bliss, certainly came close to it.

 

The novel does not have a title yet. It is a story of interwoven lives built in the form of a mosaic. The narrative revolves around the concept of a garden -or gardens-, and its meaning. The text below, “Tiempo para pensar” is, however, not an excerpt from the novel, but a short story that I wrote when I arrived at Civitella.

 

Tiempo para pensar
(English below)

 

Mientras el bramido de los bueyes agrieta el cielo, rabioso de pólvora y azufre, Dembo se acurruca contra algo muerto y empieza a ver con claridad la esencia de las cosas. Sólo su vida es importante. Debe protegerse, sobrevivir. Como sea y a costa de quién sea. Lo demás es secundario cuando una decisión equivocada entraña el mayor de los riesgos: el de no tener que volver a tomar ninguna decisión.

 

Aquí llegan ya.

 

Sus pisadas retumban cerca, trayendo consigo el ominoso hedor de la guerra. Y con los pantalones mojados y un cuchillo roto en la mano, Dembo descubre que no puede permitirse el lujo de seguir siendo un niño.

 

Unos cien metros le separan del río. Si consigue llegar hasta allí, podrá descolgarse por el desnivel de la orilla y dejarse caer entre la maleza que se acumula en la ribera, donde será muy difícil encontrarle. Eso tiene también un inconveniente: si se da un mal golpe al saltar, su cuerpo inerte acabará arrastrado por la corriente, y no podrá descansar en la tierra.

 

Su madre siempre decía que los que mueren en las aguas se pasan la eternidad en las fiestas delirantes de los abismos, donde los demonios del agua los obligan a bailar sin descanso y se divierten con ellos. Por eso, cuando ella murió, Dembo la enterró por precaución en un lugar bien seco, escondido. Tardó varias horas en arrastrarla hasta allí, pero estaba seguro de que era su deber hacerlo así. Después, colocó una pequeña flor de agapanto encima. Cómo quemaba el sol en la piel, aquel día.

 

El repiqueteo atroz de un fusil le encoge el corazón, enloquecido ya como el del pájaro en la trampa. Las opciones son dos: salir corriendo hacia el río, o quedarse allí agazapado con la esperanza de que su cuerpecillo desgarrado pase desapercibido entre los escombros de la cabaña donde se ha refugiado, entre los cuerpos de otros. De camino al río pueden jugar con él al tiro al blanco, pero si se queda es posible que ocurra algo peor: que le hagan prisionero. El río. Tiene que correr, o arrastrarse, hasta el río.

 

De pronto, ocurre algo inesperado. Un cambio de variable que le obliga a poner en práctica todo lo aprendido, o quizás a olvidarlo por completo.

 

Alguien ha entrado en la cabaña. Está solo, y no es muy alto. Su silueta se recorta entre el polvo iluminado que baila en torno a la puerta. Dembo reconoce por sus facciones y la forma de su cabeza que no es uno de los suyos, si esa expresión tiene algún sentido ya. Va vestido con un mugriento uniforme de campo, pero no parece armado. Tiene más o menos su edad.

 

Si el otro empieza a gritar, Dembo está perdido. Los demás vendrán y después ya no se atreve a imaginar lo que podría ocurrir. Desde su escondite, le observa con cuidado. Los ojos de ambos se encuentran un instante; aunque, extrañamente, no sucede nada. Dembo no sabría decir si le ha descubierto: quizás le ha mirado sin verle, quizás…

 

No tiene tiempo para pensar.

 

En menos de un segundo, usando una fuerza que no era consciente de poseer, Dembo se abalanza contra él como una pantera y le mete a empellones un trozo de tela en la boca para que no grite. Toda la furia contenida en estos últimos meses se le escapa de pronto a través de las manos, a través del cuchillo medio roto que le hinca en la tripa al otro una y otra vez, una y otra vez, hasta que la tela que le atora la boca se va tiñendo lentamente de un rojo profundo.

 

Cuando termina, se siente confuso. Intuye que, de algún modo, acaba de cambiar de bando, pero no sabe el de quién. Ni siquiera conoce el nombre del juego. Sólo sabe que los inocentes no sobreviven. Y él no tiene tiempo para pensar.

 

Oye voces, motores; gritos de mujer, risas. Salta por encima de los escombros, hacia la parte de atrás de la cabaña. Se desliza a través de una grieta de bordes astillados que se queda con parte de su nalga derecha, se cae de bruces contra algo espinoso, se levanta, corre; oye disparos pero no sabe si es a él a quien persiguen las balas. Cincuenta metros más y estará a salvo, en el río, donde de pronto se imagina que le espera su madre, y también su tía Bamidele, y su hermano mayor; y que todos le jalean para que corra más rápido y se reúna con ellos.

 

Un chico le corta el camino, quizás es alguien del poblado, quizás no; no tiene tiempo para pensar, le clava el cuchillo en un ojo, sigue corriendo con el mango ya huérfano en la mano, una bala le silba cerca del brazo, le están cazando, el río está cerca, salta, Dembo, salta, salta; la caída es fácil.

 

Tras quince metros de desplome silencioso, el río le da la bienvenida.

 

Es doloroso el encuentro: le deja con una pierna rota, dos costillas astilladas y la cadera dislocada, pero ha merecido la pena.

 

Sobre su cabeza, una techumbre salvadora de plantas ribereñas le protege de la puntería del enemigo, que parece pasar a ocuparse de otros asuntos.

 

Dembo suspira aliviado. Pero no puede moverse.

 

Conforme pasan las horas, se siente cada vez más débil. A su alrededor se ha ido formando una mancha húmeda, de un color oscuro, sucio. Sin embargo, por alguna razón no le importa. Está cansado: lleva toda su vida caminando, y sus pies son todavía muy pequeños. Del río le llega el rumor del agua, un murmullo constante, poderoso, que parece compuesto de miles de voces pequeñas. Seguramente son los demonios del río, que le esperan ansiosos en el fondo; o bien… No, no son los demonios. Son voces conocidas, su madre, su tía, su hermano; le invitan a acercarse, a dejarse llevar por la corriente. No es difícil arrastrarse hasta el borde mismo, resbalar sin querer. Las aguas rugen y saltan espumosas de pura impaciencia, y su cuerpo se desliza finalmente río abajo, dejando atrás los alaridos, los disparos, el miedo, la rabia.

 

Días después, las aguas depositan a Dembo en un poblado de la orilla, varios kilómetros más al Oeste. Es entonces cuando alguien con una cabeza y unos rasgos distintos a los suyos decide enterrarlo en un lugar seco. Y allí descansa, niño para siempre a pesar de todo, custodiado por una pequeña flor de agapanto.

 

 

Time to think

Translated by Sue Neve

 

While the bellowing of oxen shatters the sky, raging with gunfire and sulphur, Dembo crouches down against something dead and suddenly sees the whole picture clearly. His life is the only important thing and everything else is secondary. He must protect himself, must survive, however he is able, and regardless of the cost to anyone else, because a single wrong decision entails the most appalling risk: that of never again being able to make another decision.

 

They are almost here.

 

Their footsteps sound closer, bringing with them the ominous stench of war. Dembo clutches his broken knife; his trousers are wet, and he realises that he can no longer allow himself the luxury of remaining a child.

 

One hundred metres or so separate him from the river. If he manages to get there, he will scramble down the steep slope and then jump, landing in the dense undergrowth on the river bank, where it would be hard for anyone to find him. But there is one problem: if he hurts himself badly when he jumps, his lifeless body will end up in the water where it will be swept along by the current and never lie in the earth.

 

His mother always used to tell him that those who die beneath the waters spend all eternity swirling and whirling in the depths; the water demons treat them as playthings, forcing them to dance without respite. For that reason, when she died, Dembo took the precaution of burying her in a place that was well-hidden and dry. It took him several hours to drag her body there, but he felt sure that it was his duty to do so. Afterwards, he placed a small agapanthus flower on the makeshift grave. How cruelly the sun had scorched his skin that day.

 

His heart, beating as wildly as that of a bird caught in a trap, contracts in response to the staccato stutter of gunfire. Two options are open to him: he can head for the river, or he can stay crouching where he is, in the hope that his small battered body will remain unnoticed amongst the debris in the shack where he has taken refuge with the dead. If he follows the path to the river, they may decide to use him for target practice. If he stays in the shack, something even worse is likely to happen: they will take him prisoner. The river. He must run to the river or drag himself there somehow.

 

All of a sudden something unexpected happens which will force him either to put into practice everything that he has learned or to forget it once and for all.

 

Someone has entered the shack. He is alone and he is not very tall. His silhouette can be clearly discerned amongst the dust motes in the shaft of sunlight coming through the doorway. From his features and the shape of his head, Dembo realises that he is not one of his own kind, if such an expression still has any meaning. Although he is dressed in grubby khaki he does not appear to be carrying a weapon. He is about the same age as Dembo.

 

If the boy starts shouting, that will be the end of it for Dembo because the rest of them will rush in, and then…He dare not imagine what might happen then. From his hiding place, Dembo watches him intently. Their eyes meet fleetingly; however, surprisingly, nothing happens. Dembo cannot tell if he has been discovered; perhaps the boy looked at him without really seeing him; perhaps…

 

He has no time to think.

 

In a fraction of a second, using a strength that he did not know he possessed, Dembo launches himself at the boy like a panther and brutally stuffs a piece of rag in his mouth to prevent him crying out. All the rage that Dembo has been harbouring over the past few months erupts, streaming into his hands, and into the broken knife that he plunges into the boy’s belly again and again, again and again, until a dark red stain slowly spreads across the gag.

 

When it is over, Dembo feels confused. He instinctively knows that, somehow, he has just changed sides, but he does not know to whose side he belongs now. He does not even know the name of the game. All he knows for certain is that the innocent do not survive. And as for himself, he has no time to think.

 

He hears voices and vehicles; the screams of a woman, laughter. Leaping over the debris, he heads for the back of the hut. He slips through a crack in the splintered wooden planks; a sharp edge gouges out a chunk of flesh from his right buttock. He topples over something spiky, picks himself up, starts to run. Shots ring out, but he cannot tell whether the bullets are being fired at him.

 

Only fifty metres to go, and then he will be safe by the river. Suddenly he pictures his mother, his aunt Bamidele and his eldest brother waiting for him there; they are cheering him on, urging him to hurry up and join them.

 

His way ahead is blocked by a figure: that of a boy, maybe from his village, maybe not; he has no time to think; he plunges the knife deep into one of the boy’s eyes. He sets off towards the river again, clutching the knife handle, now bereft of its blade. A bullet whistles past, narrowly missing his arm; they are hunting him, but the river is near. Jump, Dembo, jump.

 

He jumps. Falling is the easy part.

 

After the silence of the fifteen metre drop, the river bank welcomes him. Its embrace is painful and leaves him with a broken leg, two shattered ribs, and a dislocated hip, but it is worth it.

 

The river plants arch protectively over his head, keeping him safe from enemy gunfire. Apparently his pursuers seem to have moved on and are engaged in other activities. Dembo sighs with relief. But he cannot move.

 

As the hours pass, he feels himself growing weaker. A damp patch, dark and dirty in colour, gradually forms around his body. However, for some reason, this does not matter to him. He is utterly exhausted: he has spent his whole life walking from one place to another, and his feet are still very small. The sound of water wafts towards him, a constant, powerful murmur, which seems to be composed of thousands of soft voices. Surely those must be the voices of the river demons, anxiously awaiting his arrival in the depths; but perhaps not. No, those are not the river demons but familiar voices: those of his mother, his aunt, and his brother, all inviting him to come closer, to allow himself to be carried away in the current. It is not hard for him to drag himself to the extreme edge of the river bank, and slip down almost unintentionally. The waters roar and leap, foaming with impatience to greet him, and his body is finally washed downstream, leaving behind the shrieks, the shots, the fear, the fury.

 

Days later, the river sets Dembo’s body down at the water’s edge, near a village, several kilometres to the west. That is when someone with different features and a different-shaped head decides to bury him on dry land. And there Dembo lies, despite everything a child evermore, watched over by a small agapanthus flower.