Mildew

PAULETTE JONGUITUD - MILDEW

Never forgive, I said that morning just as I do every morning, by the window, waiting for dawn. Never forgive. Whom? Constanza? Which one of them? Never forgive her, the young Constanza, or myself, the old one? I did not know, all I knew was: I was never to forgive.

‘It hasn’t been that long, mother, it’s normal if you feel lonely,’ my daughter Agustina had said a few days before. I don’t feel lonely, it’s this house that suddenly has an echo.

The dark sky was melted with the fence, the tree, the houses of the neighbourhood. Things were not yet solid. There, out of focus, I could be young again, my flesh could be firm, I could imagine the house full of family, I could imagine my children, Leonel and Agustina, asleep in their beds.

Once the house was always full of people but now it was an exhausted shell, restless before dawn, a deep silence barely disturbed by the dogs barking. The dogs, the only crew members that hadn’t jumped ship.

In darkness everything is the same, everything is safe. Later: who knows. The sun comes up, the city grows noisy, the shadows are just imitations of form. Darkness was beginning to crack. With light comes reality. It was the start of a day of false calm, or that’s what I thought: twenty-four hours for the house to sleep before it opened its doors to an army of workers with tents, tables, dance floor: Agustina’s wedding.

When the sky grows orange, colour invades every object and transforms it, the curtains catch fire and the grass tries to shimmer as much as the sky does. I don’t like dawn. I said goodbye to darkness the way one does when leaving a shelter to walk in the rain.

I went into the bathroom and undressed in front of the mirror. I did not find in my reflection the young woman I had been just seconds ago. I examined my body, a personal audition that I fail every morning. Big feet, varicose ankles, wide thighs.

A slight prickling in the pubis made me look down and I found a green spot, half hidden by pubic hair. It looked like a mole, irregular in form and velvety to the touch. It seemed to be covered by grey powder. I scratched but it did not go away. If anything the spot looked even larger.

I went into the shower, under very hot water. I scratched, I rubbed, I scraped: the spot was still there. I tried every cleaning product I could find, pouring them over myself. Nothing changed. Then I attacked the spot with a metal nail file: the skin got irritated but the spot was undisturbed. I cut myself with the tip of the file. The blood looked black over the green spot.

I covered the wound with a cotton ball. I don’t like surprises and since the last one had been an affair between my husband and my niece, I was not feeling in the mood for another one.

Six months earlier I had designed the costumes for a production of Macbeth and there, in the bathroom, all the bad omens came to my mind and for a moment I convinced myself that I had been struck by a curse: Out, damned spot! out I say!

When the bleeding stopped I removed the cotton ball to find that the green mole had grown towards the leg. It was getting wider and solid. I examined it carefully: it was dark in the centre, olive green, and its edges were lighter. I separated the skin where I had cut myself and saw that the green went down and into the flesh.

Do not cry.

The spot got wider and wider, it grew before my eyes, it developed white filaments like a dandelion. When I moved my leg the filaments swayed: fragile tips, firm roots, like a miniature field. I wet my finger with the tip of my tongue and ran it over the spot, then I licked it again: the mole felt like flour and had no taste.

I still smelled of cleaning products and alcohol but the voice of my mother rang through the empty bathroom: Look how dirty you are! My mother from before, the one who was not yet a widow, my once useless mother who was incapable of ironing a shirt, the one who knew how to cook only beef stew and flour tortillas. That mother who used to walk around the house as if she were asleep and who only came alive to say: clean your shoes, fix your braids.

When my father was still alive my mother did nothing around the house, she only cared for herself. She never asked if the children had eaten, if we had done our homework. We had other people for that. Look how dirty you are! My sister Nilda used to escape through the back door and hide in a neighbouring orchard just to see how long it took mother to notice she had gone, but Nilda always came home, starved and angry, before anyone had noticed her absence. I don’t like to think about my mother like that, combing her hair in front of a mirror without a thought for her nine children. Nine. I have only two and they drive me insane. Three. Do I have three children? No. Two. Only two that count.

I don’t like to remember that decorative mother. I prefer to think of her as she was when I found her after the funeral: physical, real. She was functional and ashamed for not knowing how to handle my father’s inheritance. She soon lost everything in bad investments. She lost the shoe factory which had taken my father a lifetime to build, she lost our house, she lost it all. I have always tried not to see her as a failure and I prefer to look at her strong sons instead, at her useful daughters trained not to repeat her mistakes.

Oh, mother, if only you could see me now.

 
 

The Learned Pig

 
 

We are all strange creatures. Beauty lies in difference. Who is to say what is normal and what is not? I have heard and spoken these words over and over again, as if they are a part of becoming a parent. I imagine they are handed down to every woman when their first child is born.

But I am not fooled. I know that we defend difference only when we are not different ourselves. Many of us have counted our children’s fingers and toes the minute they were born and we have sighed in relief: our offspring is human. Something deep inside tells us: there are exceptions, not every child is of the same species, there have been hybrids, surprises. But who will admit to giving birth to a monster?

A long time ago mothers would pray to their family gods for a human child. Many hybrids were broken against the sharp teeth of a mountain cliff; others inhaled their first breath only to exhale their last, smothered under the blankets. What, then, would one do with a boy covered in scales? What to do with a girl that had the witch’s sixth finger? With a little luck we would say: diseases, anomalies, infections.

I sat among the plants in Agustina’s bedroom, thirteen hours before her wedding, and I looked at my green leg and at my foot with its tiny branch and I thought: this is not entirely disgusting, it might even be beautiful, like a tree trunk by a lake, a thick root from an old tree. Many white bumps had grown over the green vegetation. And even if this was part of a body, my body, worse things had happened to human skin before, all kinds of creatures had walked the earth. Maybe this mildew was not a terrible thing; if there were people allergic to light then I could manage with a rotting leg. But could I?

I thought about those pictures of skin diseases and wondered if they were really illnesses. They might be something else entirely. The lizard-boy could really be a lizard. That other picture of a foot with a layer of white crystals growing on it could be a miniature cliff where miniature alba-trosses nested. Why not? Each one of those bodies was a different creature and each bleeding scar that looked like a leech, each spot shaped like a cloud or a mushroom, they could all be a voyage, a mutation, an evolution.

Constellations of red birthmarks, a girl with her back covered in black spots like a leopard, a woman with a melted face, a man with bubbles of skin all over his body, someone with sand under their armpits – they could all mean something, they could be a step forward or backward, they could be what survived of creatures that had become extinct. Could the lizard-boy be a descendant of a quetzalcoatl?

The mildew might not be a curse. It could be an exit.

I fell asleep in Agustina’s bedroom and when I woke up both my legs were covered in green, two beautiful trunks coated in mildew with green needles growing on my toes. The light bouncing on my vegetation and playing with the small white bumps made my legs iridescent, kaleidoscopic. Two wonderful green legs, organic, majestic. They seemed to want to move by themselves, without a torso, perhaps without me. I could almost see them dancing around on stage, making turns and jumps and falling down on the floorboards. I felt proud, as if I had made them.

I couldn’t stop touching them, perhaps because if I didn’t I could not feel them, my body was numb from the waist down. There was no more tickle, no pain, only absence. If I didn’t look at my legs, if I didn’t touch them, they did not exist. But at the same time I knew they were indomitable, they could jump on rocks and swim in a wild, cold river where the filaments would close and filter the air, the water, the pain. My pain. They were ancient specimens dating back to the first forms of life that were not yet animals, not yet plants, still full of possibilities.

I was half monster, half woman, a demon perhaps, or a deity, an imagined creature.

And I liked it.

 
 
These are two extracts from Mildew, by Paulette Jonguitud, translated from the Spanish by the author, and published this year by CB Editions.
www.cbeditions.com

Image credit: Ekaterina

 
 

The Learned Pig

Paulette Jonguitud

Paulette Jonguitud is the author of Mildew, published in English by CB EDITIONS and in Spanish by FETA/CONACULTA. She has also written El loco del martinete, a children’s book published in Mexico and Spain by Grupo EDEBÉ. She has been an artist in residence at the MacDowell Colony and a fellow of Fundación para las Letras Mexicanas and FONCA in its Program for Young Creators.