Translation by Lisa Dillman and Daniel Hahn
Art by Yasmeen Abdullah Ahmad
Excerpted from Canción, published by Bellevue Literary Press.
My grandparents lived in a palace. To me, at least, it was a palace. They used to say that my Lebanese grandfather, on a long trip through Mexico in the mid-forties, had fallen in love with a house and then had its same Mexican architect come to Guatemala, with the same rolled-up blueprints under his arm, to build him the same house on some land he’d recently purchased on Avenida Reforma. I don’t know if the story is true. Probably not, or not so much. Doesn’t really matter. Every house has its story, and every house, to someone, is a palace.
I remember its smell. Each morning, a short, testy housekeeper named Araceli would work her way through the whole house—the huge foyer, the three living rooms, the two dining rooms and two studies, the billiard room, and the six bedrooms on the second floor—carrying a censer filled with eucalyptus leaves. My brother and I were afraid of this old woman, who was our height, had gray hair, wore a black uniform, and yelled a lot, and who always seemed to emerge like a ghost from a cloud of white smoke. It’s impossible to forget the effect that that daily dose of eucalyptus had, over the course of decades, on the walls and the wood floors and the Persian rugs that my grandfather had brought from Beirut. But the house didn’t smell only of eucalyptus. The aroma was far more complex, far more elegant, comprised also of all the fragrances and spices that emanated like souls from the kitchen. And the kitchen was the territory of Berta, the cook my Egyptian grandmother had stolen from a Guatemalan restaurant called El Gran Pavo, and whom she’d later trained in the art of Arabic cuisine and the art of Israeli cuisine (while surely there is one, I was lucky never to have known the difference). There they fried falafel and kibbe. They baked bagels, pita bread, sambouseks filled with cheese, with spinach, with eggplant. They made mujaddara (jaddara, my grandfather called it), an exquisite dish of rice and lentils served with fried onion and a yogurt, cucumber, and mint sauce. They made yapraks: grape leaves stuffed with rice, lamb, pine nuts, and tamarind. They prepared, on very special occasions, a Sephardic stew, boiled long and slow (twenty-four hours), called hamin. They made fresh yogurt, and various cheeses and jams. In the pantry there were always jars filled with anise pastries, trays of baklava diamonds, a few wooden barrels filled with the olives (black, purple, green) that my grandfather imported from Lebanon. But, in the kitchen, Berta also returned to her Guatemalan roots, and made shredded beef hilachas and chicken jocón and tamales and pepián and kak’ik and a miraculously thick corn atol. And there, too, every night, in a small copper pot, she made my grandfather his Turkish coffee with toasted cardamom seeds, since he needed a cup of Turkish coffee to get to sleep.
My grandfather sat at the head of the dining room table, the copper pot in his hand, pinkie slightly raised (his three-carat diamond ring twinkling), serving everyone a small cup of Turkish coffee, whether they wanted it or not. He took loud, crude slurps. He shouted if it wasn’t boiling hot. At my grandparents’ house, Turkish coffee was much more than coffee: it was a rite, a cadence, a spell, an end point to things both sweet and bitter, the last of which coincided with a visit from an Argentine cousin named Berenice.
This is your cousin Berenice.
I was kneeling on the Persian rug in the foyer, stacking my grandmother’s poker chips into towers. Right above me sparkled the enormous candelabra, which I always thought was made of diamonds and which required a complicated system of cranks and pulleys to be cleaned. It was nighttime. I was embarrassed to be in my pajamas and slippers.
Come now, children, say hello, someone said, and they left us alone together.
I stacked another chip. The red tower collapsed.
All the same color?
Berenice sat down in front of me. In her mouth, a black hole in place of two or three incisors. She had the blondest hair I’d ever seen—it was almost silver. She wore an airy pink dress. Her knees were all scratched up.
I said do the towers have to be all the same color?
I don’t know, I managed to stammer.
Hierarchy was quickly established. I had yet to lose a single tooth.
Better if you mix the colors, she said.
The adults were drinking and chatting in the living room as wheezing and snoring from the second floor seemed to rain down upon us.
What’s that?, she asked, forehead creased, eyes cast upward. That, I said, is Nono.
“I never understood why this old man moved to my grandparents’ house, or why they put him there, out in the hallway, and not in one of the six unoccupied bedrooms.”
Berenice had come from Buenos Aires with her parents to visit Nono. That was what we called him, Nono, the husband of one of my grandmother’s sisters, an old man with white hair and slow, kindly gestures. I remember four things about him. One: he was a faithful devotee of cowboy movies. Two: he was born in Salonica, Greece, and whenever someone sneezed, he would say in his native Ladino, Bivas, kreskas, engrandeskas, komo un peshiko en aguas freskas, amen. Which was something like: You’re born, you grow, you thrive, you dream, like a fishie in the stream. Three: he had fled Paris with one of my grandmother’s sisters just after their wedding, a few days before the German occupation, leaving the apartment they’d bought on Rue de Vaugirard furnished but unlived in. And four: one day he just showed up prostrate on a white cot in the second-floor hallway at my grandparents’ house.
I never understood why this old man moved to my grandparents’ house, or why they put him there, out in the hallway, and not in one of the six unoccupied bedrooms. But suddenly there he was: very ill, gaunt, always accompanied by a nurse and always in a white gown, muttering incoherently and lying faceup on the cot they’d placed at the end of the second-floor hallway—in front of three big picture windows—that circled the entire second floor and had an iron railing that overlooked the enormous foyer at the entrance.
That was when relatives started coming from other countries to visit him. And that was when Nono’s wheezing and snoring began to thunder through the house like a perpetual storm.
Better like this, she whispered.
Berenice’s long fingers continued to dismantle my blue, black, and yellow towers and then form new ones, calmly, skillfully, combining the poker chips. She was focused. From within the black hole of her smile poked a little tip of tongue.
What’re you looking at?
Oh, nothing, sure.
I’m not, I’m not looking at anything.
You’re looking at something.
I kept quiet and Berenice kept stacking chips, slowly, carefully.
Later, she said, I’ll show you my tushie.
The stairs at my grandparents’ house were magnificent.
Go up two, she said, then down one. Like this.
A burgundy-colored rug led up the stairs to a sort of landing.
Now, she said, stay there.
I obeyed and stopped on the landing, where the stairs bifurcated and you had to decide whether to climb the rest of the way up on the left or the right, that is, to the three bedrooms on the left or the three bedrooms on the right (though there was just one wide hallway, which circled the entire second floor).
Now, she said, get under there.
On the landing, there was a cedar side table with fresh-cut roses and a set of bronze scales and framed photos—in case, I imagined, you had trouble deciding whether to keep going on the right or on the left and wanted to just land there for a bit first, on the landing.
Boy, are they ugly, she said, looking up.
Above the small cedar table, high on the wall, hung a grandiose wrought-iron relief of two whinnying horses, a design my grandfather had copied from a highball glass.
I’ll hide here, she said, with you.
We didn’t fit under the cedar table.
When I count to three, Berenice said, you run up the right and I’ll run up the left and whoever gets there first and touches Nono wins. Ready?
She counted to three. I let her win. You couldn’t pay me to touch Nono.
Us kids were having dinner at the kids’ table, in the pantry, and the adults in the dining room, just beside it. From time to time, Berta would come in from the kitchen with a tray of just-fried kibbe, with more lemon wedges, with more tahini, with another pitcher of horchata or cinnamon water. Berenice had moved my brother from his spot so she could sit next to me, and spent the whole time talking about her girlfriends in Buenos Aires, her apartment in Buenos Aires, her two cats in Buenos Aires. When dessert was served, my father poked his head into the pantry and announced that we should come into the dining room, quick, because Uncle Salomón was about to read the Turkish coffee.
Read the what?, Berenice asked, grabbing my forearm tightly as all the cousins pushed back their chairs and ran off screaming.
The Turkish coffee, I told her.
How do you read that?
Berenice was still sitting there, still holding on to my forearm.
I explained that first someone drank a small cup of Turkish coffee, and then Uncle Salomón took the small cup and sat looking at the grounds at the bottom and told the person about their future.
No way, she said, letting go of my arm.
Berenice opened her eyes wider.
So has he read your coffee?
It only works with grown-ups.
I want him to read my coffee, she exclaimed.
But you’re not grown-up.
Just about, she said defensively.
Berenice was already on her feet and walking quickly toward the dining room and so I also raced off, more for her, of course, than for the spectacle of Uncle Salomón and the Turkish coffee.
Uncle Salomón was not my uncle. He was one of my grandmother’s cousins. But we all called him Uncle Salomón anyway. He was a tall, thin old man, balding, with a gruff voice, light blue eyes, and the face of a Bedouin. He was always impeccably dressed: jacket and tie and gold cuff links and loafers so shiny they looked new. He was the only person who regularly beat my grandfather at backgammon, on the huge mother-of-pearl and polished shell table that opened up and out like origami. He could conjure small coins from my ear and cigarettes from my nose. He introduced me to my first naked ladies, on playing cards he slipped me in secret. I don’t know why, possibly out of a sense of balance or symmetry, I liked knowing that he and his brother had married two sisters.
Have you drunk it all, my dear?, he asked.
Berenice’s mother wiped her lips, made an apologetic face, and said yes, almost, all but the dregs.
At the bottom of your cup, he told her, is one-sixtieth of the coffee.
What do you mean, one-sixtieth?, she asked.
Uncle Salomón squinted a bit and furrowed his brow and said that, according to rabbinical commentary on the Talmud, fire is one-sixtieth of hell, and honey is one-sixtieth of manna, and Shabbat is one-sixtieth of the world to come, and sleep is one-sixtieth of death, and dreams are one-sixtieth of prophecy.
Right, she said.
From her tone, it seemed to me that Berenice’s mother was unfamiliar with or maybe disdainful of Uncle Salomón’s manner of speech, both paradoxical and parabolical.
Now, my dear, place the saucer on top of your cup, but turn it over, upside down.
The dining room had filled with children and adults. Most of us stood close to Uncle Salomón.
Good, he said. Now lift the cup and saucer and, slowly, carefully, spin the cup three times to the left. That is to say, counterclockwise.
There was silence. Berenice’s mother, smiling nervously and counting out loud, spun the small cup three times, while Nono made his presence known from his cot on the second floor.
Very good, Uncle Salomón said. Now, still taking care, still holding the cup in your right hand, place your left on top of the saucer. That’s right. And finally, in one quick move, I want you to turn the whole thing upside down.
What do you mean, turn the whole thing upside down? The cup and saucer both?
That’s right, both. So the cup is facedown on top of the saucer. Without dripping or spilling anything, do you understand?
Yes, yes, she said, and managed to flip the small cup and saucer without spilling any.
We’re finished now, dear, you can leave it all on the table, Uncle Salomón whispered calmly, pulling a small white pack from inside his suede jacket. And now a cigarette, he said, while we wait for the coffee grounds to dry and settle and tell us something.
Footsteps. That was the first thing. We heard their footsteps on the wood floor long before we saw them standing in the dining room doorway. Serious, mustachioed, in their tight khaki uniforms.
The man of the house, one of the soldiers proclaimed: an order more than a question.
I think none of us had heard the doorbell, or seen Araceli cross the dining room to the front door to let them in.
My grandfather stood up. He walked toward them. I remember they did not greet one another, did not shake hands. The same soldier who’d spoken turned and walked out of the dining room, with my grandfather trailing after him. Shortly thereafter we heard the creak of the study door closing.
One of the soldiers followed Araceli to the kitchen, another two went to guard the foyer and front door, and two more remained where they were, staring at us in silence. My father tried to stand.
Remain seated, señor, said one of them.
I just wanted to see if they need anything in the study.
You sit, do you hear me?, he said with one hand on his revolver. They don’t need anything.
Someone was outside, on the back lawn. I turned to the picture window overlooking the garden (my grandfather’s favorite place to go for a secret smoke), and in the darkness saw an even darker shadow holding a dark rifle.
Would you like anything to drink, officers? Some coffee?, my grandmother asked demurely, maybe just to break the silence, but neither one replied.
Suddenly somebody threw something or broke something in the kitchen. We heard strange shouting coming from the study. We heard banging and wheezing and snoring on the second floor.
I didn’t know at what point Berenice had grabbed my hand.
It’s a nurse, upstairs, taking care of my husband, said Nono’s wife, with a slight tremor to her voice.
The soldier, looking up at the second-floor hallway, lit a cigarette.
I hope that’s what it is, señora, and not something else, he said all smokily.
I’ll go check, she whispered.
You will not go anywhere, señora, the man spat, then whispered something to the other soldier, who sped out of the dining room and up the stairs, and I pictured him on the landing, looking at the photos and the fresh-cut flowers and the two wrought-iron horses.
The first soldier stood there, pawing the bronze mezuzah nailed to the doorframe. One of my aunts told him it was a Jewish talisman, that it was called a mezuzah, that it contained a scroll of parchment with verses from the Torah, that people put them there, on the doorframes of their homes, to bring good luck.
The soldier went on struggling with it, banging it with his fist, as though he wanted to remove it from the doorframe and take it with him so that he, too, could have good luck.
Nobody said a word. Nobody moved. The adults were attempting to calm the children, stroking them and whispering to them, while also attempting to determine what was going on, what so many soldiers wanted with my grandfather, whose were the strident, intrusive voices we now heard coming from all over the house. Some from the huge foyer. Others, more muted, from the study. Others mixed in with wheezing from the stairs and second floor. Others from the kitchen or the backyard. I remember thinking that I wanted to be deaf. I wanted to put my fingers in my ears and be deaf and so not have to hear those voices that I, in a very childlike way, understood were not entirely good, were out of place, did not belong to my world of eucalyptus and baklava and colored poker chips. Suddenly my grandparents’ enormous house was too small. I let go of Berenice’s hand.
Look, she whispered, elbowing me.
Uncle Salomón was reading the coffee.
At some point, Uncle Salomón had leaned over the table and taken the coffee cup and the saucer and was now studying the various shapes and shadows in the dried grounds. We all just watched him in silence (except for the soldier, who was still smoking in the dining room doorway and had no idea what Uncle Salomón was doing). We watched him maneuver the cup and rotate the saucer and raise his eyebrows and shake his head and sigh gently and even half smile. And we all half smiled as well, or tried to half smile, or at least calmed down a bit. But Uncle Salomón didn’t say a thing. He never said a thing. He was never willing to say what he read in those grounds, or to say why he never again agreed to read another cup of Turkish coffee. Some of the family thought he’d seen Nono’s impending death. Others, that he’d seen Berenice and her parents’ hasty return to Buenos Aires. Others, that he’d seen the reflection of the present, of that moment, of all those soldiers prowling through the house like wild beasts while one of them—I would learn decades later— was in the study, informing my grandfather of the final whereabouts of one of the men who had kidnapped him in January of 1967. But we never found out: Uncle Salomón never said a thing. He simply finished reading that last Turkish coffee and placed the small cup and saucer on the table and lit another cigarette as though nothing had happened, half smiling, half smoking, half smirking at something with the whole of his Bedouin face.
Eduardo Halfon is the author of The Polish Boxer, Monastery, Mourning, and Canción. He is the recipient of the Guatemalan National Prize in Literature, Roger Caillois Prize, José María de Pereda Prize for the Short Novel, International Latino Book Award, and Edward Lewis Wallant Award, among other honors. A citizen of Guatemala and Spain, Halfon was born in Guatemala City, attended school in Florida and North Carolina, and has lived in Nebraska, Spain, Paris, and Berlin.
Yasmeen Abdullah Ahmad
Yasmeen Abdullah Ahmad is a Sudanese artist based in Khartoum. She earned her BA in painting from the College of Fine and Applied Arts at the Sudan University of Science and Technology (SUST) in 2014. Inspired by the works of Palestinian poet, Mahmoud Darwish, her work explores emotional links between poetry and painting; her depictions of domesticity and the quotidian are infiltrated by the surreal and flooded by an overall atmosphere of otherworldliness. Yasmeen’s work has been shown at the Mojo Gallery in Khartoum and elsewhere.