Red Gardenias

Translation by George Henson

Ismael tasted the blood that was obstructing his breathing. He was coughing, and even though he found it warm, sweet, pleasant, he was unable to resist spitting it out in the middle of the schoolyard.

Suddenly, he grabbed his stomach with both hands in order to trap the source of the fit of retching that made its way to his throat. He avoided vomiting amid a temporary blindness that caused him to trip but not fall. He withstood the dizziness and the confusion, clinging to a precarious balance. Between pauses, between coughs, he imagined that the bloody gobs of spit that were forming on the ground were red gardenias. Beautiful gardenias that wounded his eyes with their sharp and stubborn color.

That vision of blood and beauty captivated him for a few moments. The spectacle of the gardenias filled him with a feeling of closure and brilliance he had never felt before. A lake of blood that extends into the abyss as a last gesture of salvation. As he prepared to make a run for it, Ismael felt a horse-like kick to the corner of his kidney. All at once he heaved, gasped like a fish out of water, but endured and managed to recover.

Even though his very shadow was hurting, he continued to stare as if in a trance at the spots on the ground. Amorphous figures that transmitted messages to him about the need to see reality in a different light. A light so strong that he could identify within each bloody gardenia the color or exact form of some impossible feeling. The weight of these sentences made his legs grow weak, and he fell face up beside the red spume. Once on the ground he began to curl up into a fetal position, to nullify in some way the rule of the last darkness, his nausea, and to dream.

His attacker’s name was Fernando, a boy who was the leader of a little crew at the school. Since grade school, and now in the last year of high school, Fernando and his friends had devised games of bullying and taunting of which Ismael was one of the frequent victims. After some excess or another, the crew warned: “We gotta fuck with him, but we gotta be careful. These retards are like kids. One day they wake up wanting to shit on everything, and we’re the first ones to end up covered in shit. We should leave him alone. Why don’t we take him out of the game? Or are you beginning to feel something special for the retard?”

That afternoon Fernando became furious with his friends. After cursing and threatening them in a thousand different ways he went to look for Ismael. He fumed, cursing between his clenched teeth. “Those assholes can’t, they shouldn’t think that fag stuff about him,” he growled. So he allowed himself to be carried away by the trembling that gnawed at him in the pit of his stomach, by a rabid tongue that burned inside him. He barely had any spit left because of the burning, because of the rage inside him: his pupils became two fixed points of liquid fire. He had to do it during recess, that customary vortex of racket and disorder, to carry out his ultimate revenge.

As he dreamt, Ismael saw himself swimming among the floating gardenias. Smooth, red gardenias like those that love handed him in his imagination, or like those that Fernando handed him once in life. He saw himself the first time they took a field trip with the whole class, when they were in fourth grade and when it was not scandalous to talk to each other in diminutives. “Diminutives that curiously made them bigger and closer,” he remembered. He couldn’t forget that outing, because that day, the boys tried to drown him in a pond. That time he would begin to laugh between each blow, to guffaw stupidly for no reason. The blows with knees, the kicks, the punches, any affront from that moment on would provoke happiness and laughter. And so, during every provocation, in each of the thousand abuses committed against him, he laughed; every time they spit on him, humiliated him, a contradictory complacence made him stand up: vital and infinite.

When he hit him between the gaps of every gasp, Fernando believed he was silencing little by little a story that he could no longer correct. A story of hate and love, of abandonment and rescue that still resonated inside of him: “That day I should have let him drown,” he lamented.

“Look, Fernandito is kissing the retard in the lake! They’re in love, they’re in love, they’re gonna get married when they grow up…!”

Ismael began to dissolve into his memories of boyhood with his friends, with those boys who now as young men went on attacking him. Pain and love were so close for him, that he couldn’t understand one without the other. Perhaps the simpleness of a mind like his that didn’t distinguish between angels and demons, perhaps that strange form of loving that caused him to see in the continued attacks a painful form of affection. He was tired now, remembering the day that Fernandito kept him from dying between sputters of blood and asphyxia. He couldn’t forget when he pulled him from the lake, spread him out, and kissed him, to share his breath with him and return him to live.

“He’s dying, Fernando, you hit too hard, animal!” warned the choral voice of the crew. “Look, look, he’s convulsing. You have to do something, asshole… You can’t leave him there; he’s choking on his own vomit…”
Ismael, still beaten, still dreaming or his dream ending, opened his eyes. He was as happy as he was confused, as sore as he was completely thrilled. And it was no wonder: Fernando was facing him, ready to deliver mouth to mouth. A Fernando with the shining face of when he was a boy, who bent down to pick him up, to rescue him from the lake of red gardenias that had been his life and give him for the last time his breath.

Translation of “Red Gardenias” Copyright Pedro Novoa. Translation copyright 2016 by George Henson. All rights reserved

Pedro Novoa (1974) Writer and university lecturer. He was awarded the Peruvian prize for playwriting, the Premio Nacional de Dramaturgia 2004, and the Premio Internacional de Cuento Corto Dante Alighieri for short stories. He has published the novel Seis metros de soga (ed. Altazor), for which he won the Premio Nacional Horacio 2010 in the short novel category, and the novel Maestra vida (ed. Alfaguara), for which he won the Premio Internacional Mario Vargas Llosa. He has contributed to anthologies published in Chile, Argentina, Colombia, Spain, and Peru. One of his stories, ‘Inserte cuatro monedas de a sol, por favor’, was translated into Italian by the writer Gianluca Turconi. It was included in the anthology Schegge di futuro (Splinters of the Future) with the title, ‘Inserisca quattro monete da un sol, per favore’. The Cervantes Institute has published his essay ‘Cristales quebrados y la reconstrucción de totalidades escindidas del “boom” latinoamericano’, a work with which he participated in the conference Canon del Boom Latinoamericano in Spain in 2012. The critic Ricardo González Vigil picked him as his surprise read of 2012.