from Smoke

Original by Efrén Ordóñez
Translated, from the Spanish, by Robin Myers


His daily trip to the Depot had become the only possibility of seeing her. Every day, he’d make a wrong turn; some unrecognizable building would appear before him; he’d double back onto the same street and get lost for a few minutes. But he’d find his way. Right-right-left-left. He knew that if he stopped going, if one day he’d forget to check the lists, to suffer through the endless faces, Emma could slip away from him in the multitude of bodies, and if no one went to identify her, she’d end up in the mass crematorium—and he’d never see her again, and he’d never get these images out of his head.

The bureaucrats were never suspicious of him. They didn’t care. No one could know about the images of Emma looping around and around, some new ones (or old ones, really) finding their way onto the undesired carousel. And so, after several days, when the employees finally recognized him, they stopped coming up to give him instructions. It wouldn’t have crossed their minds that he’d spent two or three weeks searching for the same person. Most citizens made their final visit on the third day, and if they couldn’t find the individual in their charge, they assumed that the authorities would take things from there and send the body directly to the Oven. They rarely returned after that.

After so many trips, he’d started to study the chimney of the Oven. Especially at night. From his apartment, he could see its perpetual blue flame, the smoke condensing hundreds of bodies as they escaped the city, gradually forming the veil that many hailed as protection from the sun. But the pavement still burned. The high temperatures in the shade made life in the city feel like it was always on the verge of a storm.

One of those days, after he’d reviewed lists and faces, he fell prey either to courage or to desperation, left the front halls, and went into the next building, the unit that housed the old oven now restored and equipped to meet new needs. A rusty mass. The Oven, in addition to the body-collection project, was an initiative launched by one of the governors, though it was an advisor who’d come up with the idea: it would be a way to stay in voters’ minds and go down in the history of Monterrey. Physically, that is. Each of the adjacent buildings bore the governor’s surname and the years of his administration on a golden plaque.

The unit had two entrances: a large one for the collection trucks, and a small one that could accommodate only a single person at a time. He entered through the second. The building didn’t typically receive individual citizens, but it wasn’t some sort of secret or forbidden act. Apathy has always been the most effective lock.

The temperature was higher inside. Closing the door behind him, he found himself trapped in a dark space, a kind of vestibule or passageway. He was hit by the rhythmic clatter of metal curtains opening and closing, the groan of burning matter, the blowtorches spitting flames. Seconds later, someone opened a door in front of him. A crooked, skeletal shadow cut across the opening. The door stayed open. He moved toward it. He emerged into the unloading area, facing several wordless workers whose sole task was to offload bodies and pile them up onto forklifts. As soon as they filled up the pallet, they headed into a dimly lit tunnel. He climbed the stairs to his left so he could get a look at the whole scene.

He passed a row of downcast, leathery men, their eyes clouded, dressed in denim overalls. He walked around like just another worker and walked up the interminable spiral staircases that reached up alongside the machine rooms—spaces that were incomprehensible to him despite his training as an engineer. He continued upward. He crossed bridges with screeching handrails, protesting under the weight of passers-by. Their creaks sounded more like human screams disappearing into the void. Distant echoes. He stopped to examine the structure, but he couldn’t figure out the intention of the design. He kept going. He walked through doorways whose thresholds opened out onto nothing, crossed others where he found men resting, or hidden, ghosts with menacing eyes. He opened the door to a stockroom and saw a small group of overcalled workers kicking at a sack that was an imperfect sphere with dark stains. His presence didn’t interrupt their game. In the end, after making his way up several levels, he found himself at a stark lookout point with a view of various mouths of the Oven. Below, at least a dozen men—some with their own arms, others driving forklifts—emptied their content into each mouth, all of which opened and shut their steel doors to a steady cadence. Most of the bodies were still clothed. One. Two. Three. Four. Five seconds to toss in a corpse or two. They fell hard. He stared, transfixed by the rhythm of the curtains, the disposal of the bodies. Emma’s name hadn’t appeared on the lists, nor her face on the monitors. He wondered. She could have slipped through his fingers. His stomach turned at the thought of finding her piled up on one of those machines and he didn’t know why. With the metal clack of the curtains still echoing in his head, he made his way out.

His experience at the Oven left him with a sense of fear that quickly morphed into urgency. He intensified his evening searches, but he still hadn’t seen her in any of the dozens of white pick-ups he kept following, spurred by police fantasies and sleuthing speculations. Whenever he caught sight of one, he’d drop everything and track it until he was sure it wasn’t heading downtown, or that a woman who looked like her wasn’t getting in our out. Once again, every effort was in vain.

After several days, he was out of ideas, and he felt that his whole life was being diluted into a stream of identical hours. He returned to the living room couch and fixed his eyes behind the curtains, past the window. Beneath that painting, on a couch where she used to sit, with the horizontal lines running behind her head and the city in the background.

One Wednesday morning, sitting on that very couch, he looked at his books for the semester, stacked up on the coffee table, and regarded them with a certain suspicion. He picked one up. He flipped to a page at random and read the first few words. Finding them entirely senseless, he went to the bedroom and turned on the TV. His thoughts drifted into the colors and dances of a half-dozen presenters on some magazine show. Framed by a ballet of fluorescent demo girls, their choreographies repeated every five minutes without explanation. He watched an interview with a local dentist, the step-by-step preparation of pasta with tuna (quite affordable), and the testimony of a housewife and mother of sextuplets. Nothing caught his attention. Until, in the middle of a commercial, a sequence left him open-mouthed: a swelling melody accompanied the image of a sun glimmering its way into daylight, illuminating the many structures built during the current governor’s administration. The time lapse showed bridges springing into existence, buildings stretching toward the sky, miles of roads where there had once been only open fields. Cranes appeared along the city streets to arrange rows of panoramic ads displaying faces in motion. They smiled. The image faded into white and the glow became a dazzling sun. Beneath the zenithal light, latest-model cars and trucks, doors printed with the state seal, advanced along the roads that flanked the River, single-file, shifting and passing each other in a complex vehicular choreography. Then a group of garbage trucks broke rank and detached from the group, and the camera focused in on just one until it filled the screen. Then a transition to an urban neighborhood. The garbage truck, now sheltered by dusk, stopped at the foot of a mountain, the Cerro de la Silla. Two smiling men, tall and fit, picked up a body wrapped in a black plastic bag stamped with the state seal. They adjusted their load between them, then tossed it gracefully into the back of the truck, still smiling. They got in. The truck revved up and they slipped back into the dance of traffic. One by one, the vehicles progressed toward a shadowy structure with smokestacks looming under columns of smoke. The sun started to disappear behind the mountain. Another long shot of the city, now softened by dusky light; then the tune repeated, proposed, and imposed by the state government to end the commercial.

He jumped up. The answer was suddenly so clear to him. This was how he’d be the first to find her. He could guarantee she wouldn’t be lost; he could take her away right then and here and avoid the humiliating formalities to which the city’s hundreds or thousands of blotted-out residents were surely subjected. In any case, after several days, the idea of seeing her dead had become almost a reality, or at least a possibility. Without dwelling on it much, his goal had changed from finding her alive to finding her, period. And as soon as he found her, Emma would replace the images in his head: they’d stop hurting him, stop forcing down on his chest and emptying his stomach. The images were a substitute for the person, obviously, and so if he could just see the person…He made some calls until he tracked down a well-connected relative, who was a bit unsettled by the request, but nonetheless came through and pulled the necessary strings. The Cadaver Collection Service hired him within hours. The next day, when he signed the contract and the euphoria had passed, he realized what finding her first would mean.

de Humo

La vuelta diaria al Depósito se había convertido en la única posibilidad de verla. Todos los días daba una vuelta equivocada, aparecía algún edificio irreconocible, volvía sobre la misma calle y se perdía unos minutos. Pero llegaba. Derecha-derecha-izquierda-izquierda. Sabía que si desistía, si un día se olvidaba de repasar las listas, de sufrir los rostros, Emma podría escurrírsele entre la multitud de cuerpos y, si nadie la reclamaba, ella terminaría en el crematorio común, y él, sin verla de nuevo y sin que se le borrasen las imágenes de la cabeza.

Los burócratas nunca sospecharon. No les interesaba. Nadie podría saber sobre las imágenes de Emma repitiéndose en bucle, algunas nuevas (o viejas, en realidad) abriéndose paso e incluyéndose en un carrusel no deseado. Por eso, luego de varios días, cuando los empleados por fin lo reconocieron, dejaron de acercársele para darle instrucciones. No les hubiera pasado por la mente que, después de dos o tres semanas, siguiera buscando a una misma persona. Por lo general los ciudadanos hacían la visita al tercer día y, si no se encontraba su carga, asumían que las autoridades se encargarían y llevarían a la persona directo al Horno. Rara vez alguien regresaba.

Luego de tantas vueltas, había comenzado a tomar en cuenta la chimenea del Horno. Sobre todo por las noches. Desde el departamento veía su eterna flama azul y el humo que condensaba los centenares de cuerpos que escapaban de la ciudad y poco a poco iba formando el velo que muchos celebraron como protección contra el sol. Pero el pavimento seguía ardiendo. La alta temperatura bajo la sombra producía la sensación de un perpetuo preludio de tormenta.

Uno de aquellos días, luego de revisar listas y rostros, víctima de un desplante de valentía o desesperación, salió de las salas y pasó al siguiente edificio, a la nave con el antiguo horno restaurado y adecuado a las nuevas necesidades. Una mole de óxido. El Horno, junto con el proyecto de las recolectoras, fue iniciativa de uno de los gobernadores del estado, idea impulsada por alguno de sus asesores para quedarse en «la mente» de los regiomontanos y colarse en la Historia de la ciudad; es decir, de forma física. Cada una de las estructuras aledañas llevaba los dos apellidos y el periodo de su administración sobre una placa dorada.

La nave ofrecía dos entradas: una grande para los camiones recolectores, y otra diminuta por donde apenas cabía una persona. Entró por la segunda. Si bien no se acostumbraba darle entrada a los ciudadanos, tampoco era una actividad secreta o prohibida para la gente. La indiferencia siempre ha sido el mejor candado.

Adentro aumentó la temperatura. Luego de cerrar la puerta quedó atrapado en medio de un espacio oscuro, una especie de recibidor o área de paso. Lo invadió el sonido del abrir y cerrar de cortinas de acero cayendo rítmicamente, del crujir de los materiales ardiendo, de flamas que escupían los sopletes. Segundos después alguien abrió una puerta frente a él. Por la abertura atravesó una sombra esquelética y corva. La puerta quedó abierta. Avanzó. Se encontró en el área de descarga, ante varios trabajadores enmudecidos con la única tarea de bajar cadáveres para luego apilarlos sobre y el testimonio de un ama de casa madre de sextillizos. Nada le llamó la atención. Hasta que, en medio de un bloque publicitario, lo deslumbró una secuencia: las notas de una melodía in crescendo sobre la imagen de un sol asomándose por la mañana cuya luz descubría las muchas construcciones erigidas durante el mandato del gobernador vigente. Con un time-lapse se levantaron puentes, edificios estirándose hacia el cielo y kilómetros de calles en donde antes sólo se veían llanos. A los costados de las avenidas llegaron grúas para acomodar hileras de anuncios panorámicos que enmarcaron rostros en movimiento. Sonrientes. La imagen fundió a blancos y el resplandor pasó a ser un sol brillante. Debajo de aquel sol cenital, varios carros último modelo y camionetas con escudo del estado sobre las puertas avanzaban por las calles aledañas al Río, en fila, cambiaban de lugar, todo como parte de una coreografía vehicular. De ahí, un grupo de camiones recolectores se desprendió del grupo, rompió filas y la cámara encuadró a uno solo que llenó la pantalla, luego la transición a una de las colonias de la ciudad. El camión recolector, cobijado ya por el atardecer, se detiene a las faldas del Cerro de la Silla. Dos hombres sonrientes, altos y en forma, recogen un cuerpo envuelto en una bolsa negra con el escudo del estado al frente. Balancean su carga y, sin dejar de sonreír, la arrojan con gracia a la caja. Suben. El camión arranca y se une a la coreografía que ha llegado a esa altura de la avenida. Uno detrás de otro enfilaron hacia una oscurísima construcción con chimeneas debajo de columnas de humo. El sol comenzó a esconderse detrás del cerro. De nuevo un plano general de la ciudad, ahora con la luz difusa del atardecer y la tonada repetida, propuesta e impuesta por la administración estatal, para cerrar el comercial.

Se levantó de un brinco. La respuesta se revelaba tan clara. Así podría ser el primero en encontrarla y garantizar que no se perdiera, podría llevársela ahí mismo y evitar los penosos trámites a los que seguramente fueron sometidos los centenares o miles de borrados de la ciudad. De todas formas, luego de varios días, la idea de verla sin vida se había convertido casi en una realidad, o al menos en una posibilidad. Sin reparar mucho en ello había pasado de encontrarla con vida a encontrarla y punto. En el momento en que apareciera, Emma tomaría el lugar de las imágenes en la cabeza, dejarían de hacerle daño, de oprimirle el pecho y vaciarle el estómago. Las imágenes eran un sustituto de la persona, claro, por lo tanto al ver a la persona… Hizo algunas llamadas hasta dar con un pariente bien conectado y, aunque a éste le desconcertó su petición, habló con algunas personas para posicionarlo. La Recolectora de Cadáveres del Noreste lo contrató ese mismo día. Cuando al día siguiente estampó su firma en el contrato y pasó la euforia, cayó en cuenta de lo que «encontrarla primero» significaba.

Efrén Ordóñez is a writer from Monterrey, México. He is the author of Humo (NitroPress, 2017), a novel which was awarded the Nuevo Leon Prize in Literature in 2014 and published under the title Ruinas (CONARTE/Conaculta 2015). He also wrote the short story collection, Gris infierno (An.alfa.beta 2014), and the children’s book, Tlacuache: Historia de una cola (FCAS 2015). In 2017, he created Argonáutica, a literary translation press, alongside Marco Antonio Alcalá, for which he translated the short story collection, Melville’s Beard || Las barbas de Melville, by Mark Haber. In 2020, he and Alcalá are launching Red Velvet Goat (RVG), a more ambitious publishing project that will encompass a broader selection of books. He is currently living in New York City and finishing his second novel, Productos desechables (Disposable products)—which he started writing with a grant from the Young Creator’s Program in Mexico—and the collection of fictional biographies titled La maestría del fracaso, with a grant from CONARTE in the state of Nuevo León, México.

Robin Myers is the translator of, recently, The Restless Dead by Cristina Rivera Garza, Cars on Fire by Mónica Ramón Ríos, and Animals at the End of the World by Gloria Susana Esquivel; forthcoming translations include books by Gabriela Cabezón Cámara, Tedi López Mills, Leonardo Teja, and Daniel Lipara. Other work has appeared in the Kenyon Review, The Common, the Harvard Review, Two Lines, Waxwing, World Literature Today, Asymptote, and the Los Angeles Review of Books, among other publications. She was among the winners of the 2019 Poems in Translation Contest (Words Without Borders / Academy of American Poets).