The nuestra palabra Short Story Competition began in 2004 as an incentive for new Spanish-speaking writers in Canada to become known, get published and receive encouragement to keep writing, and for established writers to obtain feedback and an endorsement of their experience and success. Today it is Canada’s biggest contest for creative writing in Spanish. In recognition of the ten years of the competition and as part of our efforts to promote Hispanic-Canadian literature in the English-speaking world, each month we will be publishing an English translation of the winning story for each year, beginning this month with the winner of the first edition in 2004: “Stations” by Ramón de Elía, translated by Cecilia Rose.
Ramón de Elía
Some days ago I was beaten badly, and received a particularly hard blow to the head. It was, really, nothing more than a few kicks and a couple of strikes with the butt of a pistol. I was near Retiro when it happened; I was on my way to take the express train straight to San Fernando. I think I was returning from a meeting with friends or colleagues whom now I can’t quite visualize, and I also don’t remember what happened to them or whether or not they are still around somewhere. Since the beating, I think and, especially, feel with difficulty. A foggy veil seems to have fallen between the universe and me and it’s obvious that people who know me notice it.
Sandra took me to the doctor to see if they’d find anything, a blotch on the brain or a lesion of some sort. Suddenly I feel I’m being treated like a child and somehow it seems fair. Now the only thing that interests me is travelling by train, and this is essentially all I do. I go back and forth from San Fernando to Belgrano, avoiding peak hours because I get dizzy around too many people. The pace of the train sedates me, although it’s difficult to say what it sedates me from, because I don’t feel particularly agitated. The clattering seems to massage the cerebral mass in which there must be, by now, a pool of blood. Even pronouncing the word ‘clattering’ is comforting.
The ceremony of walking to the station, finding the right platform and buying the tickets challenges my intellect. I am indifferent to the newspapers at the kiosk on the platform but I look at them anyway to see if I can make sense of the headlines. I meditate a while on the word ‘concentration’, inked in large print on one of the front pages, and it surprises me that society is as concerned about the topic as I am.
The train arrives and slides up to the platform. Sandra helps me to get on and finds me a seat near the window. As soon as the train begins to move I fall asleep, or at least I think I do, and dream of a foreign place, distant, as distant as wakefulness.
Upon waking I notice through the window that we are stopped at another station; I must have been asleep for around three minutes. I ask Sandra which station we’re at.
“Mineola,” she says. “We’re not there yet. Look at how it’s snowing.”
I tell her that I’d forgotten we were in New York, that I thought when I opened my eyes I’d see the groves of Palermo. I ask her if we are arriving or departing Manhattan.
“We’re going to see your doctor first and then I have to go to the library.”
Upon entering the tunnel that crosses the river, the lights in the train turn off for a few seconds. I’m not sure if I’m dreaming or awake. Sandra’s gloved hand is resting on my left leg. Still in the darkness, I ask her why she doesn’t push me out the window or let me fall from a bridge.
Sandra carries several books in her hand as she reacts to the guard announcing, “Mineola station, Mineola station”. They’re all detective novels, plus a manual of family medicine.
“This doctor seems to know what he’s talking about. You looked comfortable with him,” she says, leafing through one of the books. “With those pills you’re going to feel much better.”
It has stopped snowing and outside the train the darkness is complete. I don’t remember much of the visit to the doctor, except for a painting on the office wall that I can’t quite let go of: a fire engulfing a brownish substance and at the foot, a phrase by St. Augustine that bewildered me.
A ferocious wind greets me as I get off the train. It’s a cold, sunny day. The station is called “La Hondonada”, and is a solitary and miserable hovel. The man ushers me in and offers me a maté while the train moves away.
“Father Mariano said he’d be a little late because mass ends at nine in the morning”, he says, moving the heater in my direction.
He smells a bit like alcohol and speaks deliberately. He assures me that things will go well for me here, that everything is very calm and that the people of Patagonia are very kind. And that my cousin Mariano is a saint: always looking after everyone. He points further out the window and confides to me that the Father had just been looking for land for a new church when he found out about my visit. That’s why he decided to put it there, next to the railroad crossing, “so you will be comfortable.” He also says that over there, there aren’t many deaths and that nobody dares to interfere with Father Mariano. At a distance I can see, just where his hand signalled before, a cloud of dust raised by a vehicle. Soon the dust comes in the window and the roar of Mariano’s truck shakes the hovel.
The train passes twice daily through these lands and Mariano is kind enough to remind me of the exact times. I get up off my chair, go out to the garden and stand next to the tracks. I see it coming now; a moving silhouette and smoke, and I feel the soothing clattering. Even though it is far away, the tranquility of this region permits me to feel it. Perhaps the engineer will greet me as he does every day when he sees me standing here.
But just today, maybe because of the cold wind or the clarity with which I perceive that poor isolated tree, two plus two is four, like it hasn’t been for many years, and here comes the train. Now the train shows its silver-plated reflections and its bullet fate. The engineer has stuck his head out the window and I advance toward the track; I don’t stop at the wooden edge, but climb on to the tracks. The frantic howl of the whistle shakes my body and floods it with peace and astonishment that I had waited so long to accept this eternal embrace.
Translated by Cecilia Rose
Ramón de Elía was born in Buenos Aires, Argentina in 1964. He studied at the University of Buenos Aires, where he was a writer for the journal published by his department. He took part in literary and cinematic workshops, which culminated in the publication of short stories and the production of a short film. He later worked as a teaching assistant in a documentary video workshop at the same university, and at the same time worked in the film and television industry. In 1994 he travelled to Montreal to complete a doctorate at McGill University, which he complemented with literary poetry and prose workshops. He currently lives in Ottawa.