Extract > A sample from Nona’s Room

A Few Days with the Wahyes-Wahno

Cristina Fernández Cubas

From the short story collection Nona’s Room



I had always thought that my aunt and uncle, Valeria and Tristán, were happy and full of fun, but more than anything else they seemed young, really young, although perhaps they were already fifty years old or thereabouts. They were completely different from our parents and our parents’ friends. In fact, they were completely different from anyone else. That’s why I was extremely surprised that our parents sent my brother and me to stay with them in the mountains for the whole month of August that summer. They said over and over again that we would be able to breathe the pure mountain air, eat fresh eggs and drink goat’s milk straight from the goat. But the real surprise wasn’t the pure mountain air, the milk or the eggs. It was them. Just them. They were the bizarre, foolish, lackadaisical couple; the happy-go-lucky couple. Out of all the terms our family regularly used to describe their lifestyle the one I liked the best and the one that at the same time intrigued me most was ‘happy-go-lucky’. I imagined them in the privacy of their home, in the dining-room, the kitchen, the bedroom, taking bundles of clothes, sheets, tablecloths, throwing them up into the air and letting them fall back down shouting ‘Go with the flow!’ – the catchphrase of theirs that seemed to encapsulate their happy-go-lucky approach to life. They had an even better time with the pots and pans. Not to mention dancing in the dining-room to music from an old gramophone, waiting for the record to play the last few notes then throwing it up to the ceiling, celebrating when it came back down and stamping on it with delight, with a few signature chants of ‘Go with the flow!’ thrown in for good measure. I thought this routine could almost have been borrowed from the Frank Capra film my mother always talked about, You Can’t Take It with You. Although I had not yet seen it back then, I could quote some scenes almost word for word. Thinking back, it seems strange now that my mother was so fascinated by that black-and-white celluloid home where there were no obligations or rules. It was happy-go-lucky, just like her brother’s and sister-in-law’s house. Because I wasn’t wrong about that. There was complete freedom in Uncle Tristán’s and Aunt Valeria’s house. Compared with theirs, any other home seemed like a prison or a zoo. That’s why we were delighted. Surprised but delighted. And at that time we didn’t even know anything about the Wahyes-Wahno.

My aunt and uncle didn’t have children because they hadn’t wanted any. There was much talk about that in the family. Some people said they were selfish. Others – and my mother was one of those – thought it was better that way, as small defenceless children wouldn’t fit into their lifestyle. As for their lifestyle, I never got any clear information about it. They travelled a lot. They were always studying, reading, writing and painting. But was that a bad thing? No one definitively told me that it was, although anyone I asked generally shrugged, shook their heads with a smile or, best of all, with a certain air of superiority came out with words such as ‘artists’, ‘bohemians’, ‘lazybones’, ‘feckless’ and, of course, ‘happy-go-lucky’. Aunt Berta, my father’s sister, loved criticizing them more than anyone. But Aunt Berta thought she was perfect. She liked interfering, wouldn’t accept any way of life other than her own and came down heavily on any one who dared to contradict her. I hated her, and she knew it. I hated her with good reason, as she had destroyed my Human Races scrapbook with all my drawings and comments. ‘This is madness,’ she had declared that day to my complete bewilderment. ‘You’ll have to go to the doctor’s.’ She was like that. If it were down to her, she would have sent us all to see a psychiatrist at the slightest excuse. But all that had happened at least three years earlier when we had a miserable time staying at her house at the beach. I was ten years old then, almost eleven. It was summertime, too, just like now. Today, however, we were happy on the coach, feeling the strange sensation of the pressure change blocking our ears as we climbed; our faces glued to the windows watching rivers with clear blue water, pine forests, stone houses with slate roofs go past. We had seen all this before only on postcards or in magazines. When we got to the last village on the route we saw our aunt and uncle sitting outside the bar in the square. They ran over, helped us down and took charge of our suitcases. I think even then they said ‘Wahyes, Wahyes’ when they greeted us. But my brother and I were so happy that neither of us noticed.

Outside, everything smelled of manure, chickens and goats, just like we’d been told it would, but inside the house it didn’t. As soon as we went in I caught my brother with his nose in the air, sniffing like a bloodhound. I didn’t tell him off because I was doing exactly the same, albeit more discreetly. There was a strong smell. I couldn’t say whether it was pleasant or quite the opposite. It was a mixture of paint, cake, chocolate, wine, perfume and perhaps incense like you get in a church. I would find out later that one of Valeria’s hobbies was creating different scents and that some came out well and others were not so successful. But that day, when I still knew hardly anything at all, what I noticed more than anything was the kitchen. It was enormous and full of pipes and test-tubes, just like the kind of magician’s laboratory you see in films. And we liked it. We both did. It was all very different from what we’d known up to then. Beginning with them, our aunt and uncle. It was the first time we had been on our own with them without being under the watchful gaze of the rest of the family, and the long summer that stretched ahead of us seemed filled with promise. They put us in the same room. It was an enormous bedroom, and while Valeria was handing out sheets and towels Tristán asked me discreetly, ‘How’s your father? Is he any better?’

I shook my head. He was ill, seriously ill and needed peace and quiet. That was why the dining-room at home had been turned into his bedroom, and it was also why they’d decided that the best thing for everyone would be for Pedrito and me to spend the month of August with them.

‘Why not Berta’s house?’ My uncle didn’t beat around the bush, and I liked that, too. He was frank and direct, and he was surprised, just like us. I shrugged.

‘Mum said that pure mountain air, fresh eggs, goat’s milk …’ Tristán began to roar with laughter, which made him seem even younger. Perhaps that’s why I started telling him about my differences with Aunt Berta, how much I hated her. Because I’d never forgotten that morning in her house overlooking the sea when I’d decided not to go to the beach and had stayed in the garden inventing different races. It hadn’t occurred to me that this might be a bad thing to do. And I was still sure that it wasn’t.

So I looked at Tristán and began at the beginning.

I told him that a school friend had a scrapbook and that every week she put new stickers in it. They were coloured stickers that showed men and women from far-off places, with gigantic earrings in their ears or rings in their noses or lips. There were black people, brown people, yellow people and white people, too. Some of them wore their hair in plaits, while others had hair that was all tousled and a few had shaved their heads, some just a bit and others completely. Their very different and very strange customs were explained in comments beneath the stickers and sometimes along the side. I wanted a collection like that as well, but the people who ran the village stationer’s didn’t know anything about scrapbooks or stickers – or at least not those ones. So I decided to make my own. I bought card, paper, crayons and started my own collection: Human Races. I spent the whole morning working at it. I invented people, tribes, names and, in particular, customs, very strange customs like the ones in my friend’s scrapbook. That’s what I was doing when Aunt Berta appeared.

Tristán looked interested as he was listening to me, and I carried on telling him how at first Aunt Berta was just looking over my shoulder to see what I was doing. Just at first. I was getting angrier and angrier as I was recalling it all. But now, years afterwards, as I rekindle the memory, I’m grateful rather than angry. Because if Aunt Berta hadn’t crumpled up and spoiled my scrapbook, if she hadn’t told me off as she did talking about doctors and crazy games, I wouldn’t have told Tristán anything about my collection of races. And probably he would never have decided to let us into his secret world. All he said back then was ‘A natural anthropologist.’ I detected a hint of pride in his voice and tried to remember exactly what ‘anthropologist’ meant. I thought I knew, but I wasn’t sure.

‘And your Aunt Berta wouldn’t have liked that at all,’ he said a little while later rather mysteriously.

That night, after dinner, Valeria asked Pedrito if he’d like a glass of milk. To my surprise he said yes enthusiastically. But Valeria didn’t disappear in search of a goat to milk in front of him as my brother was clearly expecting. Instead, she opened the fridge and handed him an ordinary carton very similar to the ones we had at home. Then, not even noticing his disappointment, she tied up her long dark hair in a plait, adjusted her apron, forgot all about us and began dissolving some powder in a salad bowl and crushing herbs in a pestle and mortar. Almost at the same time Tristán cleared the table, unfolded an enormous map and pinned the edges down with whatever he could find in the cupboard: an old iron, a broken jar, a stone and an earthenware teapot. My brother and I looked at each other in confusion. Should we say goodnight and go to bed? Could we stay with them in the kitchen a little longer? The situation was new for us, and I understand now that it wasn’t too clear for them either. They weren’t used to dealing with kids or teenagers. Perhaps, for them, nine-year-old Pedrito and me, at almost fourteen, were exactly the same. But if they were ever in any doubt they quickly got over it, and, apart from the glass of milk for my brother every night that my mother must have insisted on, they treated us as equals, as adults or friends, which had never happened to either of us before.

‘Well,’ said Tristán once he had the map securely pinned down, ‘have you ever heard of the Wahyes-Wahno?’ We shook our heads but realized that we were being invited to take part in the event of the evening.

‘I’m not surprised. In fact, if you’d said yes I wouldn’t have believed you. But let’s begin at the beginning so that we all know where we are. As you know, I’m your uncle, your much-loved mother’s only brother, and the incomparable Valeria is my wife.’ Valeria acknowledged this with a nod but didn’t take her eyes off the mortar. ‘And I’m an anthropologist, apart from being an expert in many other fields that are not relevant here but of which you may be aware: an artist, a lazybones, a bohemian and a feckless fool.’ ‘Go with the flow!’ shouted Pedrito enthusiastically, and for all I was worth I wanted the ground to swallow me up.

‘That as well. How could I forget? Thanks for reminding me, Pedrito. That’s a good name for our house. “Go with the flow!” What do you think, Valeria?’

Valeria smiled and nodded. She was completely absorbed in her work with the pestle and mortar, as if it were the most important thing in the world. She had got into a regular rhythm that was almost musical. It was like an accompaniment that slightly muffled what Tristán was saying but which now, during these pauses, took on its own unexpected role. It was nice to listen to and lose yourself in its music as the kitchen began to fill up with an aroma of earth, grass, leaves and meadows after rain. There was another smell, too, that I couldn’t quite place, but it seemed to me that it was struggling to make its presence felt and to spiral up among all the other aromas. To overcome them.

‘Let’s get back to where we were.’ It was Tristán’s voice again, and Valeria’s music faded into the background. ‘As we’re among friends and not at a conference or in court, I’ll spare you the preliminaries. But just so you know, although it’s not strictly necessary, it’s common practice these days before presenting a hypothesis to spend a few minutes annihilating all the other hypotheses bearing the slightest resemblance to one’s own that any colleague might have dared to touch upon.’

He looked at me as if he were talking to an equal. As if I were a future anthropologist. So I nodded like I understood. I couldn’t disappoint him.

‘All I will say is that, in principle, we should not give the slightest credence to any hypothetical study about the Wahyes-Wahno or to the alleged photographs taken with powerful zoom lenses or to the news of sightings of their settlements at inconceivable distances. We are all aware of this. It’s easy to confuse wishful thinking with reality.’

He stopped, and the rhythm of Valeria’s pestle and mortar and the smell of damp earth took over the kitchen once again. Tristán was tracing the vast areas of green on the map with his index finger and murmuring wistfully ‘Amazonia, Amazonia’. I watched him closely, not worrying whether my ignorance would show on my face or bothering to pretend to understand. I was completely absorbed in the massive area spread out in front of me on the table.

Suddenly, as if I were looking at it through a powerful magnifying glass, it took on every conceivable shade of green: olive, emerald, turquoise, mint and lime. And then, as if I were beginning to dream or beginning, delightfully and drowsily, to fall asleep, Tristán’s voice took possession of my body. There was nothing else in the kitchen apart from his voice, strong and measured.

‘Wishful thinking and reality,’ he said again. ‘It’s so easy to confuse them. It’s even easier to confuse them in the jungle in the tropics when you’re in the grip of drowsiness, feverish sleepiness or those disturbing dreams you often get in those places when the past, the present and the future merge into one and which seem so real and confuse us so much that when we wake up we usually take hours or even days to realize and accept who we are. Because as long as the dream lasts’, he continued looking at me straight in the eyes, ‘people could turn into their own parents or their own children or into indigenous people like the Cashibo-Kakataibo, the Yanomami or the Awá, to give you some examples. They could also speak, sing and whistle in the language of the Pirahas. What’s even more amazing is that they could listen to and remember the final words of the last Pacahuara in the world.’ Tristán stopped there, and I took a deep breath as well. I could not remember ever having paid so much attention to anyone before.

‘That’s one of the loveliest dreams. It’s a privilege and a great honour for any one of us. The Pacahuara lying on his rush mat is looking at us, full of emotion. He knows he’s about to die and that there’s no cure to keep him alive. He also knows that on his death his language, or the little he remembers of what his language once was, will disappear. His language was corrupted in the first place by other more powerful people then forgotten as he was the last of his kind and had no one to talk to. But at that awful moment, on his deathbed, if the Pacahuara is a man, he remembers his parents and grandparents; the stories he was told as a child; his first bow and arrow; the silvery reflections of the fish he used to catch with a spear in those far-off days. Or, if the Pacahuara is a woman, she remembers washing clothes in the river; the songs she used to sing as she crushed sweet potatoes in a bowl; the pain of childbirth; the names of people who had disappeared; the times when she wasn’t alone and she could still use and listen to words that after being forgotten for years were now suddenly and vividly returning to her mind. Because that’s what the last Pacahuara dreams about, irrespective of whether he is a man or she is a woman. Past memories are recovered, and recent memories are wiped away. He points at whoever he’s dreaming about, takes him by the hand and, making an enormous effort, tells him his final words, which will also be, as both he and the person he’s talking to are aware, the last words ever spoken in his language.’

As he was talking I was filling that vast green territory with the people he was describing. And I could feel what they were feeling. The emotion of an anthropologist, explorer or traveller who at that time knows he is unique. He hasn’t understood a single word of what the dying person has said, whether he’s just expressed his last wishes, made a pronouncement or merely uttered some downright nonsense or some words that don’t make the least bit of sense. But he’s now received a message that no one will ever be able to decipher, and he’s the sole protagonist of a historic moment. The sound of the dying man’s words will accompany him for days and days (and he will constantly repeat them so as not to forget them) until another anthropologist, explorer or traveller tells him he had a similar meeting. The last words of the last Pacahuara, whether a man or a woman. The precious legacy of a dead language. The unforgettable cadence of those mysterious words that he has been able to retain in his mind to pass on to posterity. And that’s where everything begins to unravel. What the second anthropologist, explorer or traveller remembers by heart and is ready to communicate, bursting with emotion, is nothing like the words, sound and cadence that the first anthropologist, explorer or traveller has chiselled into his brain.

‘And after that portentous moment,’ concluded Tristán, ‘without any need for words both of them will understand: it’s all down to the drowsiness induced by the climate; wish-fulfilment; tricks that the jungle plays; dreams.’

Pedrito nodded off on the table, and almost at the same time the glass mortar that Valeria was using exploded and fell on the floor. Or perhaps it fell on the floor first and then exploded into thousands of pieces. What’s certain is that a strong whiff took over the kitchen. I recognized the smell of grass, rain, damp ground, leaves, but I also detected the emanation that was struggling against the rest and that had finally won. Now I knew what it reminded me of: stagnant water, rotten fruit, mouldy food. I thought something awful was about to happen, that Tristán would get cross with his wife or that Valeria would apologize profusely for the disaster. I was silly to think like that, but I was remembering the commotion at home when Pedrito spilled a glass of water on the table or got drops of sauce or soup on the tablecloth. But my aunt’s and uncle’s life was nothing like ours. Tristán was really pleased, even thrilled, and Valeria, still smiling, squatted down to separate all the pieces of glass carefully so that she could recover the strong smelling paste and put it in a test-tube.

‘You’ve really nailed it today!’ said Tristán. ‘If I close my eyes I can imagine I’m still there.’ Valeria rubbed a bit of the paste on her temples and also on her wrists. She was radiant. I kneeled down and wrapped up a few lumps in a paper napkin.

‘How fantastic!’ said Tristán.

When I got to our room I wrote down some names in a notebook so that I wouldn’t forget them: Yanomami; Awá; Pacahuara; Wahyes-Wahno. I put a line under Pacahuara as they’d been the evening’s protagonists and put a question mark beside Wahyes-Wahno, as all I knew about them was that no one knew anything about them. Pedrito was sleeping deeply, and I could hear laughter and the odd word, which soon turned into murmurs and moans coming from my aunt’s and uncle’s room. I had seen lots of films and was old enough to understand what was going on. I covered my ears with a handkerchief and smeared the little bit of paste I had in the napkin on my forehead. It smelled awful, but I wanted to be like my aunt and uncle. I’d get used to it. If they liked that smell, then I would, too.

My aunt and uncle always wandered around the house barefoot and did their exercises naked every morning. Then they got dressed for breakfast. I thought they got dressed because of us, so that Pedrito wouldn’t think of telling Mum and she wouldn’t regret having sent us to stay with her brother. Mum phoned every evening before dinner. Tristán would tell her that everything was fine and would ask her ‘Any news from the palace?’ It was his way of finding out how Dad was without upsetting us. Then he sent her lots of love and handed the phone over to us. I would say, ‘Everything’s fine’, and Pedrito would tell her all sorts of things: that he always drank his glass of milk; that he had swum in a very cold river; or that when he grew up he wanted to be a savage. Then Mum would burst out laughing and everyone was happy. The telephone was the only way to communicate with the world we had left behind. It was almost an antique and was positioned exactly halfway down the corridor, and when someone phoned you could hear their voice anywhere in the house as if the radio was on. But we didn’t have a radio. My aunt and uncle liked listening to the wind, the rain, the cicadas, the neighbours’ hens or the goats bleating as they came down the mountain every evening.

Sometimes Valeria used to sing, and she sang beautifully. She sang songs without any words – at least without any words that I could understand. She shouted, laughed, and it sometimes sounded as if she were crying. Tristán told us very quietly that she’d once been an actress and that she sometimes liked to remind herself of that. I would have liked to have asked her about lots of things – her life as an actress, for example, or their travels or where and when they’d met – but I didn’t want them to think I was being too inquisitive, so I kept quiet. I don’t know if I did the right thing. I still wonder about that years later. What’s true is that many of the things that perplexed me at the time became clear all on their own. The supermarket, for example. At the beginning I thought it was strange that my aunt and uncle, who loved the pure mountain air, rivers, goats and hens, in short, nature itself, didn’t buy their eggs, cheese or milk from their neighbours in the village and instead once a week got their van out of the garage and drove for at least twenty kilometres to a larger village that had a supermarket. Perhaps the products were almost as good, I thought at first. They were from the same region after all. Then I understood that my aunt and uncle simply wanted to keep their distance from the other people in their village. They certainly greeted everyone, and we sometimes went to the only bar in the square to have something to drink and wait for the last coach of the day. Just like all the other villagers, we liked counting the number of passengers arriving and the number of passengers leaving, making predictions, placing bets and arguing with the other tables about the possible rules of the game. Was a baby worth the same as an adult? How much was a cage of hens worth? The same as a dog or less? And how come there had never been a draw? There was even one afternoon when Tristán delightedly took the place of a domino player and won a few games. But while we were there no one from the village ever came to the house or came to visit us for any reason. There was clearly something about our aunt’s and uncle’s behaviour that made everyone else respect their privacy. They were friendly, polite and kind, but it went no further than that. Pedrito and I were aware of it and felt that we were privileged. Just like the last Pacahuara from the first night – more to the point, just like the anthropologist, explorer or traveller who was honoured or lucky enough to dream about the Pacahuara’s last words in the jungle.

That’s why, on our second night after dinner, I plucked up the courage to remind them, ‘We were talking about the last Pacahuara, about the dreams.’

I had pronounced ‘Pacahuara’ as if I were used to it and without stumbling, certain that they would be proud of my memory and diction. But Tristán didn’t seem astonished in the slightest. Valeria wasn’t either. A few minutes later, however, my uncle once again unfolded the map awash with shades of green and Valeria began crushing garlic and seeds in a stone mortar. ‘The music will be very different today,’ she said….


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This extract is from the short story ‘A Few Days with the Wahyes-Wahno’ by Cristina Fernández Cubas, which appears in her award-winning collection entitled Nona’s Room, part of the Peter Owen World Series: Spain.



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