Calligraphy (An Exercise in Storytelling)

“…those islands of the delta that undoubtedly help still its waters.”

Juan José Saer

By José Balza
Illustrated by Henry González
Selection and Compilation: Carolina Fonseca

I leave it now in all its glory. Many years ago, I had this house —complete with an expansive terrace— built solely to allow me to contemplate it. I want to gaze upon it to the end.

My first contact with it was something akin to terror. I was practically born on a boat; my father’s job involved picking up goods from many places and taking them to a small central city.

The house —this same one where I now sit, but different, of course— welcomed us at night and on Sundays; we spent the rest of the time distributing the merchandise. I have known these waters since childhood, which is why I understood from a young age that a whirlpool indicated many things: the flow of the current, the power of suction, a boat flying off in an unexpected direction.

When I was 6, a small, lively spinning locus suddenly appeared in the middle of the river. It seemed impossible that the aqueous expanse would pause there, but it did: something at the bottom had changed, causing that subtle rippling. I was present at its birth and I didn’t know it.

When huge storms and heavy, interminable rain shrouded the view, my father and the crewmen shouted about trying to avoid that spot. They were afraid they would run aground or lose the propeller. I sensed a wary unease and felt them give in to a curious fear.

The fear bloomed into terror one afternoon when the dugout struck something on the river bottom. The sailors were confused and my father was not able to maneuver away in time. The boat overturned and its contents were swept away by the current. By swimming a bit, I found myself gently deposited on a sandy surface.

I dug my feet into that new deck, smooth and oddly solid, while the water rushed by, buffeting me. The crewmen and my father shouted at me to keep still. They were righting the boat and trying to recover some of the things that went overboard. The storm intensified and the sun dropped out of sight.

The fright of the fall was followed by a sensation of well-being: submerged up to my chest, the immense river enveloped me in warmth, contrasting with the icy wind slapping my face. I moved my arms as if swimming in place, while the current seemed to be trying to shove me along. My feet rested on the ephemeral safety of the sand. After some hours, the current changed direction: the river had begun to rise.

Slowly at first, and then more quickly, the sand began to disappear from under my feet. Everyone worked hurriedly in the rain and gloom. That was when I realized that the waters would cover me, they would take me without anyone noticing: the river was rising, the current was pushing me, my perch was disappearing. My mouth full of water, I thought I called out, but to no avail. A light flashed suddenly. With effort, I raised my hand and was pulled toward a boat that had happened upon us.

In the later part of my childhood and during my youth, I returned to that place and that feeling of the sand disappearing. In the beginning, I went with my siblings and then later with friends. Much later, I went with my wife and children.

But that first glance at the whirlpool, a whirlpool that announced new land instead of an abyss, and the feeling of my feet on the sand, confirmed what I had heard everyone say: in the middle of the vast river, just in front of my father’s house, an island was emerging.

The sands that seemed to blaze under the sun and disappeared when the tide rose were unveiled as golden plains that rose like gentle hills and subsided into valleys: dips and swells surrounded by fish. A tree trunk was stranded there one day; some thin grass appeared another day. Leaves sprouted suddenly on the darkest part of the surface, which already resembled soil.

By the time my adolescence ended, a small forest skirted the beach. It might have been then that people began to call it an island, and it was then that I exuberantly confirmed the virility of my young body in the shelter of its vegetation. I felt that proffering semen first to its crevices and then later to a girl lying in the moss linked me to the island once and for all.

I moved away to work. I was gone for some years before I could return and set up a small IT business in the neighboring city. From my childhood home —my parents had died and my siblings had moved to the capital— I never failed to return to those beaches that now seemed small, a thin ribbon between water and land, while the island rose powerfully into view.

The landscape and the area had changed, as evidenced by the success of my work. Other towns sprang up along the riverfront. Cars and unfamiliar faces moved through every street. The jungle seemed to have receded. Nonetheless, the island still stands in the middle of the boundless river like a defiant symbol. Perhaps the vastness of the river protects it. Even though I know that islands continually appear in the delta, I sometimes wonder how this island chose its birthplace.

Maybe I’m not irremediably old yet. My wife died and our children moved away. Aside from how enchanted I am by this warm climate, a mysterious secret links me to the island. How many people have seen the birth of an island? And are those who have cognizant of what that means? I believe it is my destiny to be faithful to it: to see it, know it, explore it, and protect it in my memory like a fantasy more extraordinary than any reality.

I’m not sure when I understood that I was born to do this. So I stayed here. I repaired my old house so as to always have the island in view. I sense its nuances, its fauna, its changing flora. It is a moody, immobile, and enigmatic wife. No part of it belongs to me, yet no part is alien. I have occasionally thought that it recognizes that I am here.

When visiting the island a year ago, I noticed that the river had eaten away at parts of its shoreline. That’s nothing strange for a delta shoreline, but at the time, I had dreamed of my death, of my absence for the first time. I once dreamt that the delta waters and lands would shift, that this island would disappear into the vastness of time.

Now, I know that I will depart, that I will die soon, leaving it in all its glory. This afternoon, I watch it succumb to the twilight and my heart blazes.

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