The Age of Reason

Carolina peeked into the room where her mom was sleeping. She looked like an upside-down turtle. Slowly slowly she came closer to her tummy and, very very carefully, she put her ear there. What have I told you, said her mom. Poop, said Carolina, who had never gotten to hear anything in there. Why wasn’t her mom like all the other pregnant moms that would rub their tummies all day long and let other people rub them, too. I think this one is going to turn out black, she kept saying–a black boy. What do you mean, a black boy, if it turns out a black boy I’ll throw it out the window. She didn’t want a black brother. She wanted a sister. Blonde and blue-eyed. To take care of and to play dolls with, and to visit with.

Carolina went back out and over to where the books were. She climbed up onto a chair and took the big orange book that her dad had shown her the night before. It was really heavy. On the front there was a baby all curled up. Her sister looked like that inside her mom, her dad had told her, and her dad was a doctor, he knew all about that kind of stuff. Carolina opened it and started looking at the pictures. They had a baby that was only half-finished, and another one with a gigantic head that looked like it was about to explode, and another one with two heads on just one body, and a bunch of other ones like that. Her mom was yelling for her. Carolina shut the book, and with a lot of trying she put it away in its place. Whenever her mom would get up from her nap, she would make Carolina’s dairy snack. Banana milkshake with sugar cookies when it was hot and hot chocolate with assorted cookies when it was cold. That was when her favorite part of the day would start. Her mom would drink the milk with her and then she would let her watch cartoons.

Who decides the color for the babies’ eyes, she asked her dad when he got home from work. The parents. And the color for their hair. The parents. And the color of their skin. The parents. This left Carolina thinking. If the parents made the babies, she didn’t understand how there could be parents that would want them ugly or badly made. They had to be very mean. Luckily she had nice parents, the only thing was she hoped her sister wouldn’t be black and that she would be a finished product.

Like every night, her dad asked her what story she wanted to hear. The one about the ugly duckling that turns into a beautiful swan, she said. Or the one about the brother and the sister that get left in the woods and make a trail out of breadcrumbs. Again? he said. She nodded.

Her sister was supposed to get there sometime around her oldest cousin’s first communion, and Carolina wouldn’t quit asking her mom if it was time yet. Almost, Carolina, almost. Her dad didn’t want her and her mom to go out at all because, he said, then the baby could end up coming in the middle of a store or in a taxi. Carolina didn’t want her sister to come in a taxi. It would be nicer if the stork brought her sister like it had done with her and besides she was dying to see her come hanging from the stork’s beak like in the picture on her “It’s a girl!” sign. But you just couldn’t tell Carolina’s mom not to go out. When her dad would go, Carolina’s mom would put a jacket on her and they would go for a walk to look at those big dolls in the store windows. As soon as I get rid of this belly, she would say to Carolina as she pulled her along by the hand, I’m going to come here and buy absolutely everything.

The day of her cousin’s first communion, her mom was acting crazy. She danced, she laughed at everything and she wouldn’t stop drinking and eating desserts until finally she gave out a yell that froze everybody in their tracks. They had to take her to hospital. Carolina was left with her aunts and then, much later, she was taken to see her mom.

Her grandparents, her other aunts, and her cousins were all at the hospital. Her dad, in a hospital gown and a green cap, was talking to everybody at the same time and didn’t even notice she was there, waiting to see her sister. At some point Carolina came up to him and pulled on his gown. Only then did her dad look at her and tell her her sister had come. Carolina jumped up and down and shouted for joy. Her dad grabbed her by her hand and took her down one of the hallways up to a big window. There were a bunch of babies and her dad pointed at her sister. Her name is Camila, he said. She was awful. She had black hair sticking up and eyes like a fly’s eyes. Carolina waved at her, but her sister just kept crying. Her dad must have been wrong. Why is she crying? She’s suffering, said her dad. Suffering? asked Carolina. It’s very difficult to come into the world, said her dad, who was always so hard to understand, her body is like a new machine, just imagine the heart like a watch that’s just been wound and says tick-tock, tick-tock… You know? Carolina nodded, but she didn’t know. Her sister wasn’t like a machine and hearts were red like the ones her twin cousins drew that she couldn’t draw yet.

The next day her dad went to work. Her mom, seeing that Camila cried nonstop, became anxious. God, she takes after her dad, furious. What is furious, asked Carolina. Furious is when somebody’s always upset, like a dog with rabies. Yeah, but her dad didn’t have rabies. When she messed up, her dad would teach her: why you had to eat, why you weren’t allowed to cry at night, just like that for everything. Her mom did get upset, she would yell at her and smack her for just about anything. Carolina was left with the word “furious” stuck in her head and that afternoon, while her mom was taking a nap and she was babysitting Camila, she repeated it a bunch of times until her tongue started to get twisted. She had liked doing that ever since her mom had taught her the joke about the fig plucker: if you said it fast over and over, it would come out “pig fucker” instead. Carolina had tried to teach her dad the joke but he hadn’t liked it and then he had gotten upset with her mom. After that Carolina had kept her mouth shut, just in case.

When her mom started to give her her hot chocolate with cookies, she also turned on all the heaters and took the cradle into her room. She spent the whole day in there and didn’t drink hot chocolate with Carolina. Carolina, by herself in the dining room, didn’t know what to do and ended up watching the highway they were building. When it’s done, her mom would say, the cars are going to go right by the window. Carolina was dreaming of that day but the highway was pretty far for the cars to get in. They ought to live closer to the highway, then she would wave out the window to all the people inside all the cars and maybe one of them would stop and ask for a little water or a little mate and start to talk with her. Every so often she would spit on the kids that lived on the ground floor that had a huge patio full of toys. They never looked up. Maybe with the sun they couldn’t see her or maybe the saliva didn’t get there in one piece like when gentlemen spit on the street. The first time Carolina saw a gentleman spit on the street, she wanted to do the same thing but ended up spitting on her dress, and her mom slapped her. Why was her mom spending the whole day in her room, Carolina wanted to know, and she asked her dad. Mommy’s tired, he told her, Camila cries all night and she has to take care of her. Carolina didn’t understand. At night when she would get up and just barely crack the door open to look it was her dad who had Camila in his arms, helping her sleep. He would sing to her, very low, and that was why he wasn’t coming to read her stories anymore. Carolina would wait for him but he would never come. So she took the books and looked at the pictures. Some of them looked real. Maybe all of that really existed on the other side, and all Carolina had to do was climb into the drawing to find the swan lake or the house of candy and cake that belonged to the evil witch.

Her mom kept shutting herself in her room until one morning she turned on the television and started copying what the lady on the screen was doing. Later she called one of her friends and said: I’m great, I feel great, I feel like going out and doing stuff, I really recommend them, they’re magic. She was talking about some little pills her dad had brought from the hospital. This made Carolina happy. Pretty soon she and her mom were going to start going out like before and she wouldn’t ever get bored again. But her mom didn’t go out. She cleaned the house all the time and didn’t take any more naps. Carolina followed her around everywhere and asked her to give her something to do. Don’t you see I’m busy, she would yell. The worst was when Camila would cry nonstop. Will you just stop crying, she said, shaking the cradle hard. This made Carolina feel scared: Mommy, no, don’t do that, she’s suffering. Her mom looked at her, taken aback. Suffering? The only one who’s suffering here is me. One morning Carolina heard her mom talking about sending her to preschool. I know she doesn’t like it, she was saying, on the balcony, to the lady who lived next door, but she’s going to have to, I want to go out, do stuff, it’s just we were doing so well with just one. Carolina felt a pain in her throat and felt like crying but didn’t do it because she was ashamed. She didn’t want to go back to school. They had sent her the year before, and she had spent every day crying because she didn’t like it. When her mom came back in from the balcony, Carolina told her: You don’t love me anymore because I’m big. Carolina wanted her mom to get down and hug her and tell her that of course she loved her a whole bunch, but she didn’t do any of that, and instead she got upset and said: Can you try and not make stupid little comments like that? Carolina ran to her room and sat looking out the window. She wanted to jump, break her arm, break her leg and end up in a wheelchair forever like Heidi’s friend. Maybe then one day her mom would start loving her again.

The next week, in a pink uniform with a green tie, Carolina got on the bus that would take her to school. She was scared. The lady who looked after the children tied her hair back, hard, because, she said, there were a lot of lice flying around. Carolina was ashamed of that poor ponytail, but she didn’t dare touch it. They left her in a room that had boys in it, too. They had the same uniform, but blue. The teacher, who was really big and fat, greeted her with a smile that was just as big and put her at a table where they were coloring with crayons. Carolina took a black crayon and started to draw. At some point the teacher went up to her and asked her what she was drawing. Carolina covered her drawing with her arms and didn’t say anything. She was drawing her sister. After the crayons, it was time for little pieces of paper. The teacher gave them some sheets of white paper and some little pieces of paper to stick on and make a house out of. She explained and showed them how to make one and then everyone started to put their houses together. Carolina didn’t really understand where each little piece went, she stuck on three and ended up with the glue in her hand, squeezing it. The little boy next to her looked at her white paper and said: That’s not a house. Carolina looked at all the other kids’ papers and, holding back her tears, went up to the teacher and told her she wanted to go home. The teacher sat her down on her lap and pet her hair. Carolina felt strange. Neither her mom nor her dad ever did that, and she didn’t really know whether she liked it or not. When it was time to go, the teacher told her to stay there. Carolina stayed sitting and, in a little while, looked out the window and saw the teacher and her dad on the playground. They talked for a long time and then came to get her. Her dad took her by the hand and, without saying anything, led her to the car. So you don’t like preschool? he said while he was driving. No, said Carolina. But you have to go. Carolina wanted to know why and this time her dad didn’t explain it to her. Because you have to go to school.

When her dad opened the door to go into the house, her mom walked by in front of them with a dirty, stinky diaper. Take it, it’s a present from your daughter, she said, throwing it to Carolina’s dad so she could run to the bathroom where she was washing Camila, who, as always when they were changing her, wouldn’t stop crying. Her dad went to the kitchen to throw out the diaper and came back when her mom was coming out of the bathroom with Camila in her arms. I’m not a person anymore, I’m just a breast, that’s all I am. Her dad stayed quiet. As if that’s not enough, now I have to feed you two. She put Camila in her crib and went to the kitchen. Carolina went up to the crib and tried to calm down her sister. What are you doing? said her dad. I’m taking care of her. You can’t, you’re too little. But mom lets me. Yes, but your mom doesn’t know what she’s doing anymore. Yeah because you know what you’re doing, don’t you? her mom said from the kitchen. Carolina smelled something burning and thought it was coming from in there because her mom was always forgetting about the food and burning it. All you actually know anything about, she kept on saying, is giving people drugs. So you know about that kind of thing now, too? said her dad, going toward the kitchen. I’m not as ignorant as you think I am, said her mom. Carolina realized that the burning smell was coming from the ironing board that was next to the crib. Ignorant, no, he said, you’re just an idiot. She called her mom, but her mom was screaming louder now: Why did I marry you! Carolina went into the kitchen. Her dad was emptying a little bottle of pills out the window: Next time, instead of amphetamines, I’ll bring you birth control. There’s some smoke, said Carolina. Both of them went quickly into the dining room and Carolina stayed there. Her mom held the iron up like she was going to throw it at her dad. Carolina couldn’t hear the crying anymore and could only feel her heartbeat. You know I could, said her mom with her voice trembling like she was going to cry. Please, said her father, your daughter is watching you. Her mom put the iron on the board and went back to the kitchen. Carolina ran up to her sister’s crib, picked up her rattle, and tried to soothe her. She was surprised by a hard slap on her face. Go to sleep, said the voice of her father. She put her hand to her face and did not immediately understand that her dad, for the first time, had hit her.

Carolina was awake almost the whole night. She shivered, sweating. Camila’s crying came and went like echoes. She was scared. Her mom might get up, pick up the iron, and burn her face. Pig fucker, her mom was saying, pig fucker. Her dad came onto the balcony with the green hat from the hospital and started talking to the teacher, who was the woman from the bus. Carolina figured out that she was at school and started running through some hallways until she got to the door. Outside, houses with railings in the shape of arrows had on their tips people’s heads with their tongues sticking out. Carolina kept running at full speed. She had to go back home, but she didn’t know the way.

Before she opened her eyes, she recognized the musty smell of her grandparents’ room, and she felt happy. Her grandparents played with her all the time and gave her lots of sweets. Carolina’s throat itched, and she coughed painfully, like her throat was scraped. Her grandpa was next to her with the Donald Duck stuffed animal, and he told her that she was going to stay there for a few days because she had caught a chill, and now she was sick. Then her grandma came in with some soup that Carolina ate in bed. When she wanted to get up to go and play, they didn’t let her. If she got up she would catch a chill again and get sick all over. Carolina wanted to know why she couldn’t stay at her house and why her dad, who was a doctor, wasn’t treating her. Her grandparents told her she couldn’t stay at her house because she might get her sister sick and that her dad was very busy with people who were sicker than she was. All night, Carolina heard the voice of her mom talking on the phone as if she were in the next room: I just can’t handle two. I want to go out, I want to do things. We were doing so well with just one. Just one, we just want one…

The days were all exactly the same. Her grandparents brought her stuffed animals and toys to play with but Carolina wanted to go outside. When she got a little better, they brought Facundo, a boy she always played with. My grandpa went to live in the sky, he said, driving his toy car around the chest of drawers. In the sky? said Carolina, No way, you can’t live in the sky, it looks close but it’s really far away. Uh huh, yeah you can, it’s called heaven if you live there. Facundo’s parents had told him. What’s he doing there? He got sick, he died, and he went to heaven. Facundo thought heaven was full of invisible people sitting on clouds. God was there too, sitting on a bigger cloud because he was God. At night they all started shining and made little holes in the sky to look down from. That’s why, Facundo said to Carolina, you have to be good.

That night Carolina wanted to sleep with her grandparents and they let her. Before they turned out the light, Carolina wanted to know if it was true that Facundo’s grandfather had gone to heaven. Her grandpa told her yes and Carolina wanted to know what heaven was like. Her grandfather told her that there was a beautiful place for people who had been good and another, horrible place for people who had been bad. What about me? said Carolina. Am I going to go there too? No, no, he said, laughing, you have to get really sick for that. Anyway, said her grandma, children have the good fortune to always go to the beautiful place. Why, she wanted to know. Because children, said her grandma, are all good. Carolina didn’t think living in heaven really sounded all that beautiful. What about after you go to heaven? said Carolina. Where do you go after that? We stay there forever, said her grandma. What do you mean, forever? They told her to go to sleep because it was late but she wanted to understand and couldn’t. In the darkness, she cried silently. She had just discovered something terrible, but she didn’t know exactly what it was.

When Carolina was better, her dad came to get her. He left her at their door, gave her a kiss on the head, rang the bell and went toward the staircase. When her mom opened the door, he started to go down. Her mom, pulling her robe shut, came a tiny ways out into the hallway and looked around. Carolina looked at her mom. Her face was swollen like she had just gotten up from her nap. Carolina went to see her sister. Maybe she had changed, like the ugly duckling in the story. But no, she was the same as always. What had changed was the highway. It was full of cars. She went running to the balcony to wave at them. Carolina, screamed her mom, you’re going to get sick again. Carolina came back fast because she didn’t want to get sick anymore. I’m going to lie down for a little while, her mom said, take care of Camila. Carolina stayed by her sister until it got dark. Why was her mom sleeping so long. Carolina peeked into her mom’s room and spied on her. She was sitting on the edge of the bed with her face lined with black tears. Mom, are you sad? Her mom looked at her and smiled without saying anything. Carolina came into the room. Why are you sad? You’re very little. It was always the same, she was too little, she was still too little.

After they ate, Carolina went to bed without asking about her dad. She knew he wasn’t going to come back that night but she didn’t really know what was going to happen afterwards. She missed him a little, without him there was something missing in the house. Her sister spent the whole night crying. Carolina, who had gotten used to the silence of her grandparents’ house, couldn’t sleep even one minute. She stood up on her bed and went up to the window to see, through the railing, the stars. Her sister had to stop suffering. They all had to stop suffering.

The next day, when her mom went to take her nap, Carolina opened up the big window, pushed the stroller with her sister up onto the balcony and left it there. The cold was unbearable and the noise from the cars was so loud that her mom wouldn’t be able to hear her. She came back in quickly and shut the big window right before her sister started crying. Then she sat down on the floor and stayed watching the highway.

Bios

Romina Doval

Romina Doval teaches at the University of Buenos Aires. She has translated several books from French into Spanish, including Isabelle Rimbaud’s Mon frère Arthur. Her short stories and essays have appeared in a wide range of magazines, newspapers, and anthologies, including the featured story, which appeared as “La edad de la razón” in La joven guardia. Nueva narrativa argentina (The Youthguard: New Argentine Fiction).

Jennifer Croft and Martina Verdún

Jennifer Croft holds a PhD in Comparative Literature from Northwestern University (2013) and an MFA in Literary Translation from The University of Iowa (2003). Her criticism and translations have appeared in Quarterly Conversation, Critical Flame, Literary Matters, Common Knowledge, Two Lines, Washington Square, Words Without Borders, World Literature Today, and elsewhere. She has held Fulbright, Instytut Książki, and FLAS grants. *********************************************************************** Martina Verdún is a Swedish-Spanish translator for S&P Capital IQ in Buenos Aires, Argentina. She is currently studying Norwegian. She received her degree from Buenos Aires' Lenguas Vivas, where she studied translation. She is an avid reader of contemporary Argentine fiction and a world traveler who just returned from a month-long trip to Thailand.

La edad de la razón. Copyright (c) Romina Doval, 2005. English translation copyright (c) Jennifer Croft and Martina Verdún, 2013.