Fiction from NER 42.1 (2021)
an excerpt from the novel Gelsomina in the White Madhouses
translated by Rebecca Hanssens-Reed
hose were really hard times. There was no electricity, no water, no gas, no food—well, you know as well as I do, I don’t have to tell you. And in the middle of that crisis, my daughter decided to start rescuing animals. First there was the hideous dog covered in scabies that she kept out in the yard because it couldn’t even walk anymore, its paws were so raw. Then it was four newborn kittens she found in a cardboard box in front of our building. Luckily, all the cats died on her. Well, that’s what she thinks, but the truth is (just between you and me) I was the one who killed them, one by one—gradually, so she wouldn’t fall into a sudden depression, because she was already pretty unbalanced in those days. Each time we found a new dead one I’d say to her, Poor little thing. Don’t be sad, he’s in heaven now. Don’t you see how frail they all are? It’s so hard, you can’t always save them. One time she looked at me sidelong, with an expression that startled me a little—but that’s impossible, how could she suspect something like that when she’s the most trusting person in the world? I’d almost call her a fool; she’s incapable of thinking negatively of anyone.
Then she brought a white dog, Lulu, into the house. It was pregnant and so infested with fleas, it was horrifying. Fortunately, that dog died before she gave birth, because if she hadn’t, things would’ve been even more complicated. My daughter still believes that Marta, the upstairs neighbor, poisoned the dog—she’s an evil woman who really hates animals.
Every time María Mercedes Pilar de la Concepción showed up at the house with a new rescue, I wanted to disappear! I’d look at that parade of animals and say to myself, as if we don’t have enough problems already. It was the last straw. Tell me, how could we share the few scraps we had with all those stray animals when we could barely even feed ourselves? There was no way I would allow that. But my daughter didn’t get it; she wouldn’t listen to me. She was really a mess back then. In the end, the only one she saved was that mangy little dog with scabies, which we still have. He has an underbite, his bottom teeth sticking out from his lower jaw, so he looks part bat. That thing must have seven lives—listen, I couldn’t deal with him. He’s immune to every kind of poison out there—strychnine, you wouldn’t believe it, it just put him to sleep like a baby, he even snored like a human. I tried to find other means of getting rid of him. I convinced this huge man (who’s a little bit slow) who was outside weeding the garden once to whack the dog with his machete, but the idiot only gave him a superficial cut on his head that healed on its own. I even tried giving a dollar to a kid from the slum down the street to sic his Doberman on him. And he did it. That afternoon I was sure the dog from the slum would have finished off that beast, but no. María Mercedes Pilar de la Concepción went there to save him. She wrapped that bloody lump in my towel—a beautiful towel that my other daughter sent me from Miami—and carried him to the Carlos III Veterinary Clinic, where they stitched him right up.
My daughter spent an entire night lying on the floor next to the dog to make sure he didn’t scratch at his stitches. She cleaned his wounds, gave him metamizole to keep his fever down, and marched all over Havana to find penicillin. And that’s not even the whole story. Nevertheless, the dog was eventually saved. He didn’t even have any scars, though one of his ears was damaged and now it flops down over his eye like a pirate’s eye patch. To be honest, he started to grow on me when I saw how resilient he was and how hard he fought for his life. I even say he’s like me in that way—the grim reaper will have his work cut out when he comes for me, because I don’t give up easily, and if it’s up to me they’ll be carrying me out in my coffin.
I’m convinced my daughter was having delusions of grandeur while all this was going on. She wanted to prove to everyone that she was capable of dealing with her problems, and others’ problems too, because that period of our lives was the most miserable ever. We didn’t have a single drop of milk, sometimes we didn’t even have a piece of bread to lift to our mouths, or a grain of detergent or a sliver of soap to clean up the animals’ piss. It was a matter of survival. It’s that simple. And it was my job to watch over my daughter and my grandson, an innocent little boy who really looked up to his mother and didn’t realize the danger she was putting him in by bringing all those sick animals into the house. If I didn’t have their best interests in mind, how do you think that someone like me, who wouldn’t even kill a little cockroach, could ever think of doing all the things that I’ve told you? ■