I arrived in Nokia in the spring.
I had the address: a building in the city’s center.
I stopped to read the poster in the building’s lobby:
Directed by James McTeigue. Written by the Wachowski Brothers. Edited by Marti Walsh. Distributed by Warner Bros. Running time: 132 min. Starring: Natalie Portman, Hugo Weaving, Stephen Rea, Stephen Fry, John Hurt.
And in place of the bald prisoner Natalie Portman, she was on the poster.
And in large letters it read: “V for Violetta.”
I went up to her flat.
“You didn’t get lost,” she said when she saw me. With the exception of the portentous blond wig, she hadn’t changed as I expected, or as was to be expected. Somehow the force of her figure was divorced from time and hung like a movie poster in my memory. “It’s been a long time.”
She did what she had to do, and did it well. The Malecón, the streets of Vedado and Centro Habana, the long avenues of Playa. She was the most explosive and most adaptable olive-skinned trigueña of a nocturnal ecology in perpetual transformation. We spoke once. She listened to me and I listened to her. Nothing else. Then she told me that she thought about me from time to time, while being mounted as if in heat in different hotel beds, while one or more naked men snorted coke on her thighs, she thought I had saved her. It’s not true. She didn’t need anyone to save her. Nobody was able to save anyone. Over time, each in our own way, we got lost, we went about losing ourselves in the devastated memory of underdevelopment.
In a manner of speaking.
She was living in a rather small flat. A few pieces of furniture, kitchen, bathroom … The most spacious was her bedroom, but the iron cage was there.
A large cage or a small dungeon.
“I’m not going to sleep there,” I told her.
“Of course not. It’s always busy.”
The living room couch looked comfortable enough.
“You must be hungry. Let me make you something.”
She took “something” whitish from the refrigerator and began to fry it.
“Did you see how wonderful?”
It was like a soft, medium-rare steak that could be swallowed without taste or difficulty thanks to the bread.
“It’s not bad,” I said. Imagine the Burger King of your ancestors.
“I mean the refrigerator. The latest in appliances. It regulates the temperature of the house, plays music, manages my schedule, and lets me know when it’s time to welcome clients. But that’s not all.”
“Does it connect to the internet?”
“Broadband. I don’t have to go to Viking supermarket anymore. I download the food from the internet and I’m done. Lots and lots of meat. You know the hunger I’ve experienced in my life.”
And that was her. That’s what she had become.
A piece of meat-eating meat.
She was doing what she had to do to be square with her surroundings. She was changing. Nom de guerre: Violeta Venus. Also known as: The Double U. She tattooed the initial W on her ass cheek. She tattooed, without realizing it, the symbol for one of the hardest metals. But that didn’t stop Violeta Venus from becoming the name of a beauty salon. She changed it to: Violetta. More succinct, more lethal. Less Latin American. And changing meant moving, and moving meant to the North. To Miami of course, or anywhere in the USA, she would stay connected by a very fat cable at the other end of which would be the same old beauty salons. And so Violetta took a more radical north. If it was a matter of living in the first world, let it be the real first world.
Take walks. That’s what tourists do.
Except for me, everyone in Nokia looked like a tourist. Fresh out of a spa or about to enter a spa.
I wondered how many Cubans had appeared in the area.
Preview: Cubans without memory (a flying saucer just dropped them in Western Finland), Cubans without antennae, disconnected, scattered, going out to take sun like lizards that have shed their skin.
I bought pills. Sleeping pills.
I tried to buy another momentary souvenir of the country (one of the countries with the highest number of deaths per million prescriptions for Temazepam), but didn’t find anything worthwhile.
After returning, I saw a man come out of Violetta’s flat. We passed each other in the hall. He was wearing a tuxedo and carrying a briefcase. I understood the latest model of Audi parked outside the building. The guy was a Nordic version of the successful executive.
But his look was something else. And his expression.
He walked like a zombie.
There was nothing behind his eyes.
“You haven’t told me how your trip from Helsinki was.”
“The lakes are spectacular,” I admitted.
“How long are you staying?”
I looked at her. She was worried about business.
“You can stay as long as you want.”
“Are you sure?”
“You helped me once. Remember?”
“More or less.”
“I’m wondering if you came here so I could say thank you …”
“Let me ask you something.”
I told her I didn’t understand. Why did they go to the trouble of coming there? In exchange for what? Why travel so many miles (not only from Helsinki, she confessed to me: they also come from Stockholm, Copenhagen, St. Petersburg, Berlin …) to a provincial city where she was probably the only professional whore.
Flattered, Violetta smiled, and then took off her blond wig, revealing a skull barely covered by a dark shadow, a skull that looked devastated by extensive chemotherapy.
“They come for this,” she said, moving her hand over her head.
I sat up on the couch, wrapped in a blanket covered in hair. It must have been three or four in the morning.
I heard the voice again:
“You’re from the tropics too?”
“They say that in the tropics you have to keep your cool.”
I looked at the door to Violetta’s room. It was locked.
“Hey, over here. It’s me. The refrigerator.”
It spoke Spanish with a mechanical accent that I found irritating. I got up to see if I could find some way to silence it, and I found a panel with several tiny buttons that would make matters worse for sure.
“Hey, what are you trying to do?”
I looked for the power cord.
There wasn’t a cord.
“Of course not,” I said. And it wasn’t a dream.
The dream of technology continued producing monsters. I continued to have problems falling asleep.
“I heard what you asked her. Do you want me to tell you why living in a small, remote city works for her?”
“You heard wrong. That’s not what I asked her.”
“You’re her friend, right?”
I returned to the couch and covered my head with a pillow.
Violetta came out of her room and stopped cold in front of me:
“How do I look? I’ve never gotten a cold opinion.”
Long stiletto boots. Black full-body latex suit.
And on her head a cap like the ones swimmers wear.
I gave an approving nod:
“Ready for the World Wastewater Championship.”
“For the prelims,” she said. “A bit of play, you know. This is my battledress now. In Havana I would have died of heatstroke.”
The legs. The breasts. And that massive mare-like dominatrix ass. I could go on and on. Her whole body from the neck down looked so impressive that not even she could feel comfortable in it.
“Not just the heat, but the ridicule too,” she added. “And vulgarity. And poverty. And the emotional cacophony. I don’t really know why, but in Havana a person couldn’t wear these clothes.”
I began to collect some things.
A book that I’d no longer be able to read like before.
“Don’t eat the client,” I told her. “Take your time.”
“You don’t have to leave. We’ll be in my room. After a few minutes you’ll see the door open a little.” She winked at me, her eye exploding with striking black lines. “You can come look … if you want.”
“Today I want to remember Simo (1905-2002),” the refrigerator said. “He died in April, a few years ago. The oldest human being I’ve ever seen. The most historic and also the most weary. Poor Simo.”
“This isn’t April,” I protested.
“Shortly before his death, Simo was in Nokia. He came from the East, from his hometown, which is near the Russian border. He came from the border to see your Cuban friend. But it’s not what you’re thinking.”
“I’s incapable of thinking.”
“They just talked. She listened to him and he listened to her. Nothing else. I guess she felt sorry seeing him that way, so small and with his face so shattered.”
“Okay.” I took the bottle of pills to my mouth. “Who’s Simo?”
“Simo is the best sniper in history,” the refrigerator said.
I peeked in quietly:
A briefcase on a chair, and on the chair, clothing: pants, shirt, tie … The businessman, the naked entrepreneur, was crouched in the cage, wearing nothing but a swimmer’s cap on his head. His eyes were closed, and he wore a sleepy smile, a placid smile. She was in bed painting her toenails with an absent air, playing with a key in her mouth, the key to the cage lock. I turned to contemplate, engrossed, as if I were far away, the excessive sensuality of her body. It didn’t take a genius to notice that the businessman’s cap was connected to Violetta’s, that at that time and in that room something was flowing through invisible channels or satellites and probably in one direction.
1939-1940. The Winter War.
“At temperatures ranging from twenty to forty below,” the refrigerator said, “Simo was practically invisible. He was just under two feet tall and dressed in white camouflage; to top it off, he didn’t use a telescopic sight, so as not to increase the size of the target he provided to the enemy during combat.”
“Who was the enemy?” I asked just to ask.
“Snipers are often given away by the sun’s glare in the lens of their scopes.”
“Good to know.”
“Simo downed all by himself over seven hundred invading soldiers, and unofficial data raises that number to a thousand. A record. The daily count of those killed was taken on the battlefield by the Finnish snipers themselves.”
I imagined seven hundred Finnish snipers walking through the snow. They rummage in the bodies, bury them. They make jokes about solar glare, snack, smoke pipes. Instead of sheep, I began to count camouflaged snipers … and I was on the verge of falling asleep.
The refrigerator had remained silent.
“Belaya Smert,” it said suddenly.
I thought it had restarted in another language.
“What did you say?”
“That’s what the Soviet invaders called Simo. ‘The White Death.’”
Going out seriously for a walk.
Leaving behind the streets of Nokia, the hotels, the invading horde of tourists, the parties of senior executives of the cruelest companies in Northern Europe.
And keep walking north, walking without stopping.
I went into the woods.
Miles of woods and then: more woods.
From time to time: a highway empty all the way to the horizon.
To warm myself, I burned branches of spruce, birch, and so on.
I’d put up and take down a tent that at night was a cause for concern for the foxes.
One day I found a bear hide riddled with gunshots. With the bear inside. I looked everywhere in search of a gun among the motionless pine branches.
Another day, as I approached the polar circle, as I felt the polar circle entering me, she appeared.
With her long black hair from before.
With her sweaty face, full of scratches.
She sat next to me by the bonfire and asked me how far I planned to go.
“I followed your trail like a hungry predator … Bloody hell, you left without leaving a damn note.”
All of that (her words, the fire devouring the wood) was unexpected and absurd. I had left her a cheesy note in which I told her (among other memorable things) that it was impossible to escape the summer color. Then I copied a line from Reinaldo Arenas’ book:
…because that color, that sadness, that petrified flight, that knowledge, is ourselves.
You and I, Violetta.
With your dark circles caused by nightmares or overdoses of sleeping pills and with that immense coat you’re wearing, beneath which, I know, your body is savagely naked.
Venus of the furs that we left behind, that do not kill the cold.
“All the casualties inflicted by Simo on the enemy occurred within a period of three months. During that time the Soviets developed countless plans to get rid of him.”
“They programmed an appliance to talk to him all night.”
“They launched artillery attacks, positioned their own snipers, that is to say communist snipers, but nothing worked. The explosive discharge that wounded Simo in the face was a random shot. His fellow soldiers who found him unconscious reported the following …”
The refrigerator paused for effect to freeze the horror.
“…that half of his face was missing. Simo fell into a coma. He regained consciousness on the very day peace between the Soviet Union and Finland was declared. After the war, he was promoted from under-sergeant to under-lieutenant by Field Marshal Carl Gustaf Emil Mannerheim. In later years, every time he was asked how he became such a good marksman, Simo responded with a single word: ‘practice.’”
“Practice,” I repeated.
“Without a telescopic sight,” the refrigerator reminded me.
“Did anyone ever tell him that he had established a global brand?”
Simo approached the fire. Writhing in passion, Violetta and I separated suddenly upon seeing his shrunken silhouette come out from the shadows. Simo was a monster. He said: “I did what I was ordered to do as best as I could.”
I entered the flat.
She had just finished one of her sessions. A piece of meat was frying in the skillet.
“How was your walk around Nokia World?” she asked me. She was barefoot and her hair-raising baldness wasn’t covered by her cap or her wig. “What do you think about the lifestyle? Isn’t it like being in paradise?”
I glanced into her room. Just then a naked woman was exiting the cage with slow and deliberate movements. I saw her take off the cap and fix her hair in slow motion.
“Do not worry about her. She’s okay.”
“What are you doing? Some kind of mental domination?”
“It might be more complicated than that,” she said, smiling. “Are you hungry? I also made French fries.”
We were feeding on junk food when the woman exited the room, elegantly dressed and made up. Black stockings, a well-heeled attorney’s bag, or that of a boss with lots of attorneys, and in the middle of her face an empty and happy post-coital expression and blue eyes that seemed incapable of even blinking.
Violetta accompanied the woman to the door, exchanging a few words with her in English and in Swedish. She then showed me a wad of euros, happy as a little girl with leukemia who has just received a gift.
“This is what keeps me alive,” she said.
“Keeping yourself alive is what you’ve always done.”
“My bed is more comfortable than the couch.”
I told her that I didn’t doubt it.
“Are you sure you don’t want to sleep with me? You have dark circles from here to the North Pole.”
I looked at her. I looked at her blond wig on the couch.
I said to her:
“Simo used a Finnish version of the Soviet Mosin-Nagant rifle, the M28 Pystykorva. Do you want to see it?”
“Are you going to put it on the screen for me?”
“No, I have it here inside. Simo gave it to your Cuban friend for her to hide. As you might understand, there are a lot of people behind this rifle. And many dead.” The refrigerator opened itself, allowing a cold fog to escape. “Come closer. This rifle, and everything I’ve told you about Simo, is the best memory you’ll take with you from this country. But you have to see it …”
I got up and went to look.
I saw only plastic bags.
“It’s down below.”
I reached my hand in, removed several bags, and suddenly something caught my attention.
I looked through the nylon of one of the bags. I looked at more bags. They were all the same.
They all contained pieces of a whitish mass filled with folds and crevices. They looked like pieces of brain.
“Yes, it’s just what you’re thinking, they’re human brains. But if I had told you, you wouldn’t have believed it. I had to get you to find out for yourself. I had to hook you with a story so you would become curious and come to look. I’m sorry. I hope it’s not too late.”
I put the bags of flesh back and rubbed my frozen hands together.
“It’s too late,” I said, looking at the clock that was on the talking refrigerator’s screen. “It’s almost five AM.”
Violetta was still sleeping soundly.
I looked at her: she was sleeping like I might never be able to sleep again.
And then, looking at her, I thought I’d never really been able to help her as she might have wanted, but now, years later and many miles away, I was in the right place at the right time to do it.
So I didn’t wake her.
I didn’t even leave her a note.
Jorge Enrique Lage (La Habana, 1979). A graduate in Biochemistry from the University of Havana, Lage has published the short story collections: Yo fui un adolescente ladrón de tumbas [I Was a Teenage Grave Robber] (Ediciones Extramuros, La Habana, 2004); Fragmentos encontrados en La Rampa [Fragments Found in La Rampa] (Editora Abril, La Habana, 2004); Los ojos de fuego verde [Eyes of Green fire] (Editora Abril, La Habana, 2005), El color de la sangre diluida [The Color of Thin Blood] (Editorial Letras Cubanas, La Habana, 2008), and Vultureffect (Ediciones Unión, La Habana, 2011); as well as the novels: Carbono 14 [Carbon 14]; Una novela de culto [A Cult Novel] (Ediciones Altazor, Lima, 2010; Editorial Letras Cubanas, La Habana, 2012); La autopista: the movie [The Freeway: The Movie] (Editorial Caja China, La Habana 2014); and Archivo [File] (Editorial Hypermedia, Madrid, 2015).
George Bert Henson is a translator of contemporary Spanish prose. His translations include works by some of Latin America’s and Spain’s most notable writers, including Sergio Pitol, Elena Poniatowska, Andrés Neuman, Claudia Salazar, Miguel Barnet, and Leonardo Padura, and have appeared variously in Words Without Borders, Buenos Aires Review, Bomb, Asymptote, The Kenyon Review, and World Literature Today, where he is a contributing editor. His translations of Sergio Pitol’s The Art of Flight and The Journey were published this year by Deep Vellum Publishing. George teaches in the Department of Spanish & Portuguese at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, where he is also affiliated with the Center for Translation Studies. He holds a PhD from the University of Texas at Dallas.