The following is taken from Eva Baltasar Rock. Baltasar published ten widely acclaimed volumes of poetry. His first novel, Permafrost, received the Premi Llibreter 2018 from Catalan booksellers and was shortlisted for the Prix Médicis 2020 for the best foreign book. The author leads a simple life with his wife and two daughters in a village near the mountains.
Quellon. Chiloe. One night years ago. A little over ten hours. No sky, no vegetation, no ocean. Only the wind, the hand that grasps everything. We must be ten. A dozen souls. In a place like this, in a time like now, you can call a person a soul. The wharf is small and sloping. The island goes to the water in concrete blocks with a number of cleats bolted on after it. They look like the deformed heads of the colossal nails that fasten the wharf to the seabed. That’s all. I am amazed at the silence of the islanders. They sit strewn about in the rain next to large trunk-sized objects. Swaddled in windproof plastic, they eat in silence with thermoses wedged between their thighs. They wait. The rain falls as if to curse them, runs down their arched backs and forms streams that flow into the sea, the enormous mouth that never tires of swallowing, of receiving. The cold is special. It’s possible I drank some myself, as I can feel it thrashing and thrashing under my skin, and also deeper inside, in the arches between each organ. Inscrutable islanders. I’ve been here for three months, working as a cook at a few teenage summer camps. In the evening, I cycled into town and drank aguardiente at the hostel bar. There were hardly any women
It was a working class ritual. Stained teeth exposed in greeting. The jet black eyes of every family tree that has managed to grow on this salty rock speak to me from their tables. They speak to me for all the dead.
I’m not a chef, I’m just a canteen cook, competent and self-taught. What I love most about my job is handling food while it’s still whole, when part of it still speaks to its place in the world, its place of origin, its the exclusion zone that all creatures need to thrive. Water, earth, lungs. The perfect conditions for silence. Food comes to us wrapped in skin and to prepare it you need a knife. If I have one skill in the kitchen, it’s cutting things up. The rest is hardly an art. Seasoning, mixing things up, applying heat. . . Your hands end up doing everything on their own. I worked in schools, retirement homes, in a prison. Each job lasts only a few weeks, they slip on me, grease stains that I remove little by little. The last boss I had before coming to Chiloé tried to give me an explanation: the problem isn’t the food, it’s you. Kitchens require teamwork. I would have to find a very small one if I wanted to work alone and continue to earn my living.
The ship arrives at midnight. It is heading towards us at an alarming speed. Or at least that’s what it looks like, because of the dazzling light in the downpour, which makes us blink. There is also movement behind us; someone pulled up in a jeep and left the engine running. He calls us. The islanders are rising up. They look like huge turtles hatched from a large egg. They plod along in the rain, and when they pass me, I feel like an insignificant stranger, white with sickness and drenched under my dark blue rain jacket. It would take two of me to make a body as strong as theirs. But I was like them before, despite everything. I had dug the island with my fingernails and learned that the pads of your fingers can harden, that the heart rules the body and shapes it according to its highest mandate: the will. We huddle around the driver’s door. I use my hood as a visor, rub my eyes and try to make sense of what’s going on. Hands exchange coins, banknotes. From the car radio comes the sound of string music, as if in honor of the storm. I buy a ticket with pesos from my belt bag. The rest of my three months’ salary is wrapped in plastic, wedged between my undershirt and my skin.
It’s as if the sea itself held the bridge, as if the ocean was coming to get us. My backpack makes me walk sideways. I have strings in each fist and I let them lead. Screams keep us going. As I board the ship, I think it’s not that big, and then…silence. Human sounds are virtually imperceptible here, beyond the reach of the elements. We walk sideways, cautiously, up a metal staircase. Behind a door is an empty hold. It’s a freighter, not a cruise ship. We sink inside as if we’ve been adrift for years, and some of us exchange glances, perhaps for the first time. The man next to me pulls out a bottle of pisco and takes a long sip. Then he passes it around. A pipe ceremony: we’ll see how it ends. I take off the rain jacket and my soaked sweater, then put on a dry and dirty sweater that I find after blindly rummaging through my bag. I don’t know when we set sail. The wedge goes up and down constantly. Every once in a while we all slide to one side and the light bulb flashes until the sea rises again, sending us back to where we were before. An old woman hands me the bottle with a smile in each eye and a toothless smile. I take it and drink. I love this place, these narrow black eyes that neither desire nor reject me, this fabulous freedom.
That’s what I was looking for here, true zero. I was tired of making up resumes, of having to pretend that life had structure, like there was a rod of metal inside me that held me upright and steady. The destination always kills the journey, and if life has to be reduced to a story, it can only be a bad one. What was I thinking, dropping everything for a three-month contract on the other side of the world? I had just gotten kicked out of a restaurant in an industrial park. I hitchhiked there every morning. Most of the time I was late, even though I gave myself two hours to make the trip. The best part of my day was when a car or van pulled up on the side of the road about a hundred yards away and called out to me with its blinkers on. I was running towards him like a madman, backpack and jacket open, blowing clouds of breath and cigarette smoke into the cold air. Some drivers were surprised when they saw that I was a woman. Others didn’t even notice. Fifteen kilometers of peace, of being nowhere, of encroaching on the paths of kind people who had to suffer from it every day. I often wished I could jump out of those cars while they were still rolling, instead of having to politely say goodbye and close their doors like closing the coffin of a good friend, an inanimate body. What was I thinking, let it all go? The devastating possibility of the same old job, a tiny bedroom in a suburban apartment, lovers as fleeting as shooting stars, warm to the touch one day, a distant dream the next. The days passed and passed, unchanging, and each night I took them down one sip at a time, lying on my narrow bed with headphones in my ears and an ashtray on my chest. I had walked through life obsessed with an intangible conviction, bound by the handful of things that kept me from becoming penniless, an outcast. I needed to face the void, a void that I had dreamed of so often that I had made it a mast, a center of gravity to cling to when life was collapsing around me. I came from nothing, polluted, and yearned for windswept lands.
Of Rock by Eva Baltasar, translated by Julia Sanches. Used with permission from the publisher, And Other Stories. Copyright 2022 by Eva Baltasar. Translation copyright 2022 by Julia Sanches.