Fernanda García Lao trans. by Will Vanderhyden
Sharks with hairdos
My name is Estela Beatriz Cornejo and I never wanted to hurt anybody. I was beautiful once. But beauty is a waste. If nobody remembers me now, it’s because I took second place. In a way, that’s the curse of the runner-up. She lives in oblivion, in the shadow of history. And I don’t mean because of the lack of prizes. Maybe it was the tragic events of that night that condemned me to this interminable amnesia. For a few seconds I felt the crown, the weight of obligation, and the glow of success clouding my vision. Then a lottery drum sealed my disgrace.
Back then all I cared about was gazing at the stars.
When everyone else was asleep, I slipped out the kitchen window and lay down on the ground to stare up at the minute twinkling. I gave them different names. I was never that interested in reality. I invented a constellation and called it Olinda: a little cluster that appeared around one in the morning. I enjoyed the silence, waiting for the runaways. The stars that cut the celestial cord and plummeted into nebulas, those were the ones I liked best of all. Like stones falling into a dark pool.
I always imagined that there was some being up there looking back at me from the darkness of his planet. When I look up, he looks back at me.
One afternoon, a diminutive mustachioed man came to talk to my father. A little while later, I was notified. They signed me up without asking. Father was a big and redheaded man with a gift for fury. Not too talkative. Just a couple words here and there. He said: Be concrete. What that meant, I don’t know, but I nodded just in case.
The mustachioed man had left precise instructions. The next morning, we got in the truck and drove to the hair salon. Father waited on the sidewalk out front. The unctuous hands of the depilatory woman slathered me with a foul and fecal honey that boiled in my pores. When it hardened into a dry crust, without taking a breath she tore away the interminable strips, strands of seaweed, crystalized and hairy. I writhed and howled like a primitive creature. The trashcan beside the gurney filled with sticky coils. That image still resonates today. When the torture was over they served me a tea. I didn’t even taste it. They gave me a really pretty hairdo, adorned with feathers. But when I got out on the street, a horrid warm wind came blowing out of the north. My hair turned into a knot. Or a nest. Mother laughed when she saw me come in. And she had to pluck my feathers.
I would’ve slammed the door, but only had a curtain. I hid away in my room. Screamed a silent scream. Misery flooded me. The buzzing flies echoed my despair. With abandon, I asked for the vastness to take me. I didn’t know what I was doing. I remember the sky was clear, its dome visible, or that’s how it felt to me. Nothing happened that night, but the mechanism had been set in motion.
Days with no news. I figured I’d already been forgotten when a gaggle of fancy ladies arrived in a rental car. They brought a variety of dresses and a pair of wedge heels. Like a mistaken Cinderella, they tried them on me and everything fit oddly: the shoes absurd, the dress several sizes too small.
They disappeared in silence, but the car came back the next day to take me to the dressmaker.
My dress was velvet. Looking at myself, I felt other. Subtler. Since mother couldn’t go, Regina and I went together. She was a pretty little thing, two years my senior. She lived across the street. But my nomination upset her, she gave me dirty looks. There was madness in her eyes. I don’t know what dirty tricks she used to get herself nominated, but I suppose that becoming Delfino’s girlfriend must have helped. His mother was on the Departmental Committee. There was a ball at the community social club and Regina was awarded a nomination. They gave her a little crown just like mine. She never took it off, not even to bathe. Since the day they gave it to her, whenever I’ve seen her, she’s got that little crown fixed atop her head. It made her unforgettable.
The problems started when they brought us all together. The contestants were summoned to the Hall of Mirrors. We were received by a group of refined ladies. The most venerable, wearing a bored expression, made us form a line and rotate around our own axis. It reminded me of the celestial orbits and I felt the urge to escape. But I stayed where I was. An oval look was multiplied in the mirrors. As they were correcting our posture, the position of our feet, and the width of our smiles (which should extend only to the first canine), I saw her. One queen too many. The name of her department began with the letter H, odd because no such department existed. In the hustle and bustle, she went unnoticed. She didn’t wear a crown, but moved with confidence. She was the most elegant of all. She seemed otherworldly.
That night was first contact. A flash summoned me to the window and I felt an indefinite force take hold of me. Under the climbing grapevine, an unexpected presence: the contestant without a crown. She was mute but managed to communicate. She made bizarre drawings in the dust on the hood of the truck. When I came to, because time seemed like a warm thermometer, I found myself stretched out across my bed. The sun had already risen. The stranger was gone.
I was woken by my father’s curses. Rag in hand, he tried to wipe away the lines in the dust, all the while blaming the neighbors. He grabbed a random little boy, and dragged him by the ear to our driveway. I took the opportunity to copy down the symbols in my notebook.
I went to see the mathematician who lived next door. Her diagnosis:
—It looks like a twisted form of Greek. I’d say this is phi, a dead letter from the alphabet. These cones and arrows look like sets. Or reciprocals.
—And this? I observed, unsettled.
—Clearly it’s a fraction, E + R / E = E / R = H. A simplistic representation of the golden number, she determined.
—Of what? I asked, flustered.
—If you want to take a class, I’ll explain it to you. Where did you find it?
—I found it on the car.
—Ah, no. I don’t know anything about mechanics.
I turned the enigma over in my mind, but I lacked the knowledge. I got lost in one rotation and dreamed of H. A deranged audience laughed uncontrollably while blue spaceships hovered over their heads. I was on a dais. The alcoholic buzz of the spectators spoiled the divine ratio. Regina floated up onto a barrel, like an engorged balloon.
The next day, when we arrived at the hill, I almost died. The stage was a spaceship built of plastic wine barrels. The contest slogan shone in blinking black bulbs: Long Live the Cosmos. I got dizzy. Planets and comet tails wheeled overhead. The universe throbbed above me and an extraordinary determination hardened my veins.
On the sixth day, we filed into the Hall of Mirrors. My heart beat beneath the velvet. The ladies stood at the microphones and, with a slightly disquieting gospel air, intoned The Song of the Grape. After some weak applause, they took their seats in the front row. We filed out onto the runway in descending order according to the rankings. H was most beautiful of all, but nobody noticed. I began to imitate her and all eyes swung to me. Soon the ladies chortled the name of my department: G, G, G. It sounded like laughter or a violent paradise. The judges wrote my name on the little chalkboard. Then Regina, who came after me, did what I did and the masculine multitude moaned S, S, S. It sounded like the buzz of a parasite. Her name screeched across the chalkboard too.
The next day on the Carousel, perched in my star carriage with my asteroid dress, it dawned on me that I’d be the chosen one. Maybe the mute girl was an incorporeal being who’d come down from above to help me.
That night, under the grapevine, with my star notebook, I kissed Regina’s boyfriend. We surprised each other. He brought a bunch of grapes. He looked like a poor Bacchus. He sat down beside me and kissed me. At first I was cold, but Delfino’s interminable and full lips lit a fire inside me. We rolled across the ground into the bushes. He touched me there. Like a soloist.
The morning of the pageant I got up late, disregarding the organizers’ instructions. After the first cup of maté, the car arrived from the committee. Regina was sitting up front next to the driver. She looked like a miniature. She regarded me with revulsion and her presence consolidated my competitive spirit. I wanted to win so Delfino would leave her.
The exaltation of the dressing rooms resembled an orgasm. Everyone screamed and gesticulated, pierced by the phallus of success. Or was it that, after my erotic encounter, I saw everything in those colors. The makeup and wardrobe artists were caught up in the panic, running around concealing bags under eyes, lengthening hems, or synching down a voluptuous waist-line. I was becalmed. I had the cosmos on my side.
Around two, they served us a snack. A woman with coiffed hair sent us to the dressing rooms. As I adjusted my little crown, the first tragedy. H fixed her eyes on one somnolent contestant and, all of a sudden, inhaled her. As if stealing her life force. H’s eyes changed. The girl fainted, she was withdrawn from the competition. Her crown and sash were given to the stranger. I felt sick. Maybe, she’d absorb all of us. I felt naïve and frightened. I’d gotten it all wrong. My astral nights by the grapevine were shockingly simplistic. Now I faced enormous challenges. Regina seemed like a Little Red Riding Hood whom I’d have to defend against H’s gnashing fangs.
It got dark on the hill and a crowd filled the amphitheater. I stared intently at the ladies on the committee. How many were human, I had no idea. All were suspect. But the most venerable, based on the size of her sequins, was worst of all. She had a hard time walking and I wondered if her feet might not be flippers. I followed her with my gaze and she knew it. She shot me a fierce look that forced me to lower my eyes. The story of the cosmic pageant was a way to hide her true objective.
Regina came over to me. She uncorked a bottle. I was so nervous that I drank two glasses all at once.
—May the best woman win—she suggested, holding her glass aloft.
—To human supremacy—I offered, and she almost choked.
A chorus of milky girls kicked off the festivities. Acrobats spun and knotted their bodies around fluorescent ribbons. The crowd howled with pleasure. The governor’s speech left me dizzy.
There was an unexpected blackout. For an instant, the sky, riddled with stars, was all that was visible. A drumroll led into the fireworks. As hundreds of them exploded over our heads, the organizers pushed us onto the stage. Impressive opening. Each of us atop a plastic wine barrel. The wine was blood. The fat woman with the flippers stood at a podium and began to present the contestants according to their respective virtues. Thanks to the black light, we all looked like strange creatures. I felt outside of myself. And what’s more, I couldn’t hear. All I could do was watch the figures and the musical numbers, like in a silent or deranged movie.
Finally there were just three semifinalists. The trio of the golden equation. H, R, and I. After a recount H was eliminated. She stood aside with convincing humility. Beside me, Regina was ablaze.
An enormous lottery drum rose out of the floor. There was an ovation from the crowd. Two young men inserted hand cranks. Absolute stillness. I looked for H in the darkness, but she’d vanished. Regina closed her eyes and moved her lips, caught in an attack of mysticism. The hand cranks began to turn and the lottery balls floated in luck’s uterus. I was paralyzed, overcome with vertigo. The wine in the barrels looked like a stormy sea. The world spun to my stomach’s rhythm.
Suddenly, one innocent ball slid toward the gate. The governor stuck in his hand and removed the winning letter. He stepped forward, destiny held aloft, followed by the committee, the acrobats, and the milky choirgirls. The audience stood. The group of ladies stood atop a flight of stairs. The governor took his place behind the microphone, a modern system of inverted plungers lifted us up onto the highest barrel. We were one step away from victory. The governor shouted the letter and an explosion of gunpowder brought back my hearing. But I hadn’t heard who won. Regina raised her arms to the sky and the governor showed the winning lottery ball. Amid smiles and trembling, she left her barrel and took her place on the big one. The announcer proclaimed her victory in an exaggerated manner.
I was about to applaud her, when she looked at me. Her eyes were not her own.
What can I say? I took her down without thinking. I leapt on her and we fell five meters into the void. Fortunately a barrel broke the fall, but it ruptured and we fell into the wine. Multiple spotlights illuminated the violent struggle. I was determined to drown Regina, to free her from H. But she didn’t let me and lunged to bite me, kicking her feet. Her skin was cold, like a fish in a stormy sea. How long did the fight last? I don’t know.
A police officer fished me out by my hairdo.
The agitation and the sopping dress made it hard to walk. They handcuffed me and shoved me off the stage. The whistles and insults didn’t bother me in the least. What upset me was seeing H among the contestants. Was she in two bodies at the same time?
As I was being taken away in the police cruiser, I started to cry. Feeling the crowd’s rejection was an undeserved slap. The hateful faces behind the glass and the siren’s noise were too of this world. The smell of drunken velvet became unbearable.
I never saw my father again. I could say that he was abducted, but no. I won’t lie. He left on his own two feet, with the mathematician. That’s what mother said, when they let her visit me in the clinic. The truck, my only evidence, disappeared with them forever.
H has come back. She looks back at me out of my bedroom mirror. But it doesn’t hurt anymore.
Hate was invented here. In heaven, it doesn’t happen.
Fernanda García Lao's "Sharks with Hairdos," translated by Will Vanderhyden, can also be read in the print edition of The Arkansas International 3.
Fernanda García Lao is an Argentine fiction writer, poet, and playwright.
She is the author of seven books of fiction and two poetry collections. Her
2004 novel Muerta de hambre won the Premio del Fondo Nacional de las
Artes. In 2011, at the Guadalajara Book Fair, she was named “one of Latin
American literature’s best-kept secrets.”
Will Vanderhyden is a translator of Spanish-language literature. His translations include Navidad & Matanza (2014) and Loquela (2015) by Carlos Labbé. In 2015, he received an NEA translation fellowship and a Lannan
Foundation residency for his work on The Invented Part by Rodrigo Fresán.