“La noche de las nubes” comes from Juan Carlos Méndez Guédez’s 2012 collection Ideogramas. I first encountered the story at a reading in Madrid in 2013, in which Méndez Guédez spoke about how his stories are not autobiographical, but ‘autogeographical’, presenting characters caught between Venezuela and Spain. In the intervening years, as Venezuela’s crisis has deepened while the US and Europe continually tighten their borders, this story of a mother trying desperately to bring her son from Venezuela to safety in Spain has only become more relevant.
… Holy Virgin of Barajas, I promise you it’s not a tango, I just like whistling, whistling any old thing, I whistle a lot, and that’s why I always make this face when people here in Madrid shout at me Argentina and I, of course, say no, mister, you’re far off, quite far off, Venezuelan, mister, at your service, born in El Tocuyo, and they say to me, oh ok, some Argentine village, and me, no, mister, further up, much further up, although I didn’t live there but in Caracas, which isn’t where you’re talking about either, and them, ah in the north of Argentina, so there’s nothing I can say, and I don’t explain it to them because with what I get paid for my tortillas I earn enough, I make them very well, really well, surely you’ve tried them, sure you have, because if you have breakfast on Alcalá or Barquillo or Prim or Infanta, well all of those bars buy their tortillas from me, nobody makes them like I do and you know what, I didn’t even know, I had no idea until I came to Spain and learnt, I try to learn and be a good person and then damn it, you come along and tell me they’re sending my son back, they’re putting my son on that plane and sending him back home, oh Holy Virgin of Barajas, and I’ve got a bag full of tortillas from this morning, and all the bars are waiting for me because I’ve never missed a day and people will have to have croissants and donuts and that junk that doesn’t fill you up or taste of anything, poor things, what are these people going to have for breakfast today if I’m here?, and I was so happy coming here to pick up my boy and now they have him locked up, those sons of bitches, excuse me, because I’d even made an extra tortilla to give to my son so he’d go home to sleep well fed, he’d be exhausted, the flight knocks you out, and now you tell me that they’re keeping him in, that he can’t come through, and you must not have children because you’re very young, but damn it, imagine getting up earlier than ever to pick up your boy, coming here, whistling happily, whistling like never before from pure joy, and now you give me this shock about my boy, he’s the only one I’ve got left, you know, because the first one liked to study and got a degree and I don’t know if it was because of that exactly but he got it into his head to get mixed up in politics and they killed him at a protest march, and the middle one, who had a kiosk selling drinks, was killed in a hold up while he was getting money out of the bank to buy a car, and the third one, well that one did turn out bad and lost, that one was arrested for selling some vans which didn’t belong to him and got stabbed in prison fighting over a plate of rice, so I’ve only got this one left, who isn’t the most studious or the roughest, but he likes to work, he works a lot, and he’s had a fruit shop for years, a little fruit shop, that’s why he didn’t want to come when I insisted, when I said let’s go anywhere, because it’s too easy to die here, and in the mornings you drink water and it tastes like death and you drink coffee and it tastes like death and you walk around the square and the air smells like death, and I can’t cope with it any more son, come with me, because the dead we leave far behind stay alive for us, we forget them a little and they can live again, far away, but he said no way, no, no, and I came here with a niece, and I wanted to bring this son with me who was in love and didn’t want to come until last month they kidnapped him, him, the fruit, an employee he had, two thugs kidnapped him and put him in a van full of melons and guavas and passion fruits and bananas, and called me here and told me that he’d already given them some money but it wasn’t enough and either I wired them 2000 euros or they’d cut his fingers off and post them to me even if they arrived rotten and I begged them in the name of the Virgin and all the saints not to do it, so I withdrew my savings and sent them to them and when I spoke to my son I told him: look, I saved your fingers, but now you come here, bring that little woman of yours, and bring the fruit and even the employee and even bring the van if you love it that much, but don’t stay there, you daft sod, don’t tempt fate, save yourself, as your brothers couldn’t, I convinced him, you see, because in the end those bastards ended up doing the boy a favour, they gave him the strength to escape, and the only mark they left was a gash on the head from the butt of a pistol, but now you tell me that those sons of bitches the police say no, no they won’t let him in, that they’re deporting him because he hasn’t got much money with him, that he seems suspicious, they’re fucking suspicious the lot of them, he’d be pale, from the fright of flying, he’d be scared and he’d be looking at his hands thinking it doesn’t seem real that they’re still in one piece, he’d be looking to one side and he’d be scared by how hairy you all are, and how your mouths smell like garlic, which scared me too at first, because at home we only put a little garlic on meat, or use it to scare the vampires who suck women’s necks to knock them up, that’s what my grandmother used to say, she never left her little coffee shack in Guarico and she died happy, but don’t get offended, don’t make that face, I love garlic now and on Sundays I grab a little bread and a little garlic and a little tomato and I eat it very happily and think that I could be eating it with my boys if they hadn’t all been killed on me, eating together without worrying that someone could turn up and cut our fingers off or that some guy on a motorbike could pull out a police rifle and empty it into my eldest son’s stomach, well I told him to keep quiet, but it was the wife’s fault, she filled his head with nonsense, the wife got him into university groups and took him along on protest marches and now she’s going crazy from grief, like me, but she doesn’t speak to me because on the day of the funeral I almost scratched her eyes out, and I know I was wrong, I shouldn’t have done it, but I did and now it’s over and that’s why I came here, so I don’t scratch anyone’s eyes out, because that’s what I really wanted to do then, and also when they killed the other one coming out of the bank, smiling like a dope, because he was going to buy a green car, my foolish little bastard, oh what a world, so now I only want you to let my youngest son through, to stop pestering him, because this one doesn’t want a car, and he doesn’t want to shout at anybody, and he’d never go to prison, this one only wants to keep all ten of his fingers, you understand, it’s not that complicated, I’m sure that you like having all ten of your fingers, you have beautiful hands, mister, don’t blush, they’re very nice, like my boy’s, and I woke up happy this morning thinking that he could help me to deliver the tortillas here, or he could spend some time as a waiter or picking strawberries, that boy isn’t afraid of hard work, he’s afraid of kidnappers who carry pliers this big and who sometimes make films of themselves cutting peoples fingers off, yes, yes, don’t make that face, yes I know that you’re only here to inform me, that it’s not your fault, but do something, tell me who to talk to, who to beg, who’s eyes to scratch out, and I’ll get down on my knees and I’ll scratch their eyes out again, because my boy has to stay, don’t send him away from me, he was always special, quiet, calm, he just liked to whistle, my boy used to say that whistling was good for you because it’s like letting out the birds inside you, yes, because he talks sweetly, my boy, mister, he used to say wonderful things, as a child when we saw a jet black sky he told me that some nights are so night-like that even for the clouds it was night time, and he repeated it several times, night time for clouds, mummy, the night when you can’t see the clouds because for them there’s a night so night-like that everything is darkness and when I think about when he used to say things like that to me I feel a beautiful sadness, because it’s like he put into words something that I needed to know and I still don’t recognise, and now here you come with this nonsense about sending him back, damn it, it’s not right, I tell you, you know that this boy’s father was Spanish?, do you know that?, well yes, from a town in Orense, a village, or something like that, but of course, I don’t have the papers, I don’t have them or the man, as soon as the boy was born the wretch disappeared on us, he worked in agriculture and told me he’d landed a job in Guanare picking rice and I never heard from him again, but there’s still a photo of the village in the house, I can go get it if I need to, it’s a very pretty village, dark stone houses, yes, yes, I know that the photo won’t make any difference, but help me, don’t be mean, listen, how about I give you five tortillas, no, no, it’s no trouble, I’ve wasted the morning anyway, don’t hurt my feelings, just one?, well, yes, I know that you’re only the one who gives the bad news and not the one who makes the decisions, poor boy, tell me that life isn’t a little sad, like being a raven who only brings bad news, no, don’t get offended, I’m giving you the tortilla out of affection, I already know you can’t do anything, but try it, try it and tell me if anyone who can make a tortilla like that can have a bad son, because in several bars I’ve been told that trying my tortilla has made men cry, and they’ve started to say that no one has made them as well since their grandmother, if that’s true then go on, try a little, and then do me a favour and bring him a tortilla for me, it’s good isn’t it?, and I have one with no salt for people with high blood pressure, I think of everything, I can already see that you don’t seem to suffer from high blood pressure or from anything, you look very good and if I were forty years younger I swear I wouldn’t let you go without a nibble on your chin, you have a handsome chin and that little dimple really suits you, don’t blush, mister, and promise me you’ll give my boy the tortilla, that will cheer him up, even though he’ll have never tried one before, much less one I’ve made, I didn’t know how to make them until not long ago, but my arepas, mister, oh my arepas, I only do those for a restaurant on El Barco, you should go one day and try them, or better yet I’ll bring them to you and to the policemen who don’t want to let my son enter, they must be hard-hearted, take him the tortilla, he’ll surely eat a little and share the rest, he’s a good boy, and they tell me that among the people they won’t let in there’s a five-year-old boy, poor child, I spoke to the mum a while ago, she’s in Spain legally and now they won’t let the little five-year-old in, haven’t you seen the woman?, she’s very attractive, wearing a silk scarf, and she’s got those huge hips that drive men crazy, but the poor dear is worried to death because they want to send the boy back to the Dominican Republic, which is scandalous, of course, scandalous, although I understand that they must have a number of people to send back every day, surely that’s it, and I understand, but there’s no need to overdo it, although I assure you that this boy is well looked after in the Dominican Republic, and surely if he puts his mind to it he’ll be a great footballer or the singer in a merengue orchestra, that boy has his whole life ahead of him, but my boy doesn’t, my boy is a terrible singer and has too much of a belly to be a footballer, so if you have to send someone back then send back the boy and let my son through, because if he goes back they’ll soon kidnap him again and then you’ll let his fingers enter Spain, when it would have been much easier to let him in whole, don’t look at me like that, we’ll see, I can promise you that my boy is healthy, but that child probably has scarlet fever, can you imagine an epidemic, or who knows if that child has killer instincts and is very dangerous, because when a child grows up without his mother, you know how it is, maybe they’ve sent him over now because he used to pull the cats’ and dogs’ eyes out and he even started biting his grandmother, if it turns out the policeman who kept the Dominican brat back was right, I take my hat off to him, what a good eye, what skill, but my boy, goodness, not my boy, don’t let them send him back, he came happily and he was going to bring his wife over later and I was ready to welcome her because even though she hates me the woman is very hardworking and she can’t be a bad girl, she sold everything she had to pay the ransom, it’s just that everything she had wasn’t very much and I had to go, as always, to solve the problem, so look at me, how should I feel, you think I should just go home alone and leave by boy there, in no man’s land, God no, Holy Virgin of Barajas, don’t abandon me, work a miracle for me, huh?, why are you looking at me like that?, didn’t you know?, of course, the Holy Virgin of Barajas, you don’t know her because you’ve never needed her, but she always appears, every day, she’s a beautiful woman, with black hair and large green eyes, great breasts and a stunning smile, with full lips like a black woman, the big mouthed Holy Virgin, although I think she’s really more María Lionza, a kind spirit we have in Venezuela who guards the Sorte mountain, and a woman who lives in the rivers, but my friends tell me that she must be the Virgin because she helps everyone who needs her and in that way she’s very international, like for all of us, didn’t you know?, I don’t know if I believe in God, why should I lie to you, too many things have happened to me, but I certainly do believe in the Holy Virgin of Barajas, my local priest doesn’t like me to say such things, but God still has to show Himself, while I can testify to the Virgin of Barajas, the day that I arrived the police couldn’t take their eyes off me, I was ready, and then when it was almost my turn, and I just had one man in front of me, snakes and spiders started to appear all over the man’s body, yes, don’t look at me like that, I swear it on my sons, several snakes and like five spiders came out of his coat, and everyone started screaming and the police arrested the man and started chasing the snakes and the spiders, so all hell broke loose and they stamped all our passports very quickly and let us all through, don’t you see?, a miracle from the Virgin of Barajas to let me enter with my niece, and I could tell you many other cases, people who were already waiting to board the plane back and suddenly they see a light and there’s a wind like the air is whistling, and a woman sits beside them and takes them by the hand and without saying a word leads them through corridors and corridors and suddenly the Virgin opens a door and another and up to seven doors and they go through the last one out into Madrid, out by the bus stop, and find themselves looking at that beautiful sky you have here, so blue, so much like a photo, I swear it, and I know of a thousand other cases like it, but there are people who say that the Virgin isn’t a Virgin exactly, rather a kind spirit, a woman who wasn’t allowed in and who cried and cried because if she went back the husband she’d abandoned would kill her, the poor thing cried until she died of a heart attack on the spot where they had her locked up, but before she died she stared at the policeman who had ordered her to be sent back and said: look what a short memory you have, given how well your uncle Pancho was welcomed in Caracas and how well things went for your grandfather in Barquisimeto, and the policeman went white because no one knew his family history, and bad things started to happen to the policeman and black splotches appeared on his face and then he started to hear the woman’s voice all the time, calling to him, and one morning the policeman went into one of the airport bathrooms and blew his head off, and since that day the woman appears and leads many people through the corridors so that they don’t get sent back, I swear it, why are you looking at me like that?, don’t smile, you don’t joke about these kinds of things, my niece laughed when I told her about what happened to us with the snakes and the spiders and five minutes later she twisted her ankle, and that was bad for her because she used to spend twelve hours a day cleaning houses and she couldn’t get out of bed, so I told her, you don’t joke about things like this, but it was worse for me because on top of my tortillas I had to clean a ton of flats, like I tell you, I’m not here for hand-outs, I’m there when I’m needed, I even went to give blood the day those bastards bombed Atocha, three hours I waited there, my niece and I waited, and they only let her give blood because I’m too old, but I was there, putting up with the cold and the sadness of that morning that you won’t remember but it was a grey and windy day and then in my part of town the street corners filled with candles and even little kids’ toys and I couldn’t stop crying because of those miserable sons of bitches, I hope they burn in hell for eternity, if hell exists, I don’t know, because I don’t believe there can be a place big enough for all the bastards and all the arseholes, but that day I couldn’t stop crying, it was as if the worst of what I had escaped from was here too, and I went to give blood, you see, at my age, so you tell that to those policemen, you tell them to earn themselves a place in heaven today and bring them a tortilla too, if they try them surely they’ll no longer want to do me harm, and if they’re good then I give you my word that you’ll never be short of fried eggs around here, mine are delicious, and every December you won’t go without hayacas, I swear you’ll go crazy when you try them, hayacas, yes, mine are fantastic and if you’ve never tried them, well you don’t know what you’re missing, my son, who you want to hurt by sending him back to hell is fantastic at preparing the dough, because the secret of a hayaca is kneading it properly, don’t you know how to knead dough?, but what are you saying?, no, no consulates or anything like that, those parasites aren’t going to help my son, be a good boy, yes, I know that you can’t, but they will know about it, no?, there’s a reason you came to inform me, just a few little words, talk to them, talk to them please, or let me go to speak to them, I want them to tell me to my face, to tell me that they’re going to throw out my boy, I want them to throw it in my face and then I’ll tell them about the policeman who had to hide in the bathroom because the voices never let him sleep again, yes sir, I’ll tell them, then they’ll be warned, no, no, I’m not getting violent, I’m not threatening, I’m an old woman, an old woman doesn’t threaten, and if she does you mustn’t pay any attention to her, but I’m going to tell them the story, nothing more, just so they’re aware, oh Virgin, it can’t be true that every soulless jerk born in this country gets hired by Barajas to fuck with people, I’m serious, I’m not shouting, I understand, yes, yes, I can see it, I already know what they’ve just told you over that little device in your ear, yes, I can already see that the plane just took off and that you sent my son back, thank you so much, may God pay you back for this, pay you back twice what you and them are putting me through, yes, yes, and look, there’s the mother of the boy who they wouldn’t let enter and she’s leading the child by the hand, the little boy, he looks so small, do you realise?, it’s another miracle from the Virgin, another one, the Virgin doesn’t falter, there isn’t a day when she doesn’t appear, it’s just that if she’s such a Virgin and so holy and so good she should focus better, damn it, it wouldn’t have cost her anything to save my son, lead him through the corridors, these virgins are really stupid, that’s why people don’t believe in them anymore and only want to take drugs and drink and sin, there’s nothing you can do with so much stupidity, the Virgin saw the little boy and saved him, even though that boy would have been just fine beside his grandmother, knowing what kind of mother leaves such a small boy and comes here, damn it, not even the virgins are serious these days, that child has a face like a tramp, look at those eyes, he seems like a demon and on top of it all he’s ogling the backside of that colleague of yours who’s gesturing for you to leave me alone, yes, yes, at just five years old, how dangerous, what was the Virgin doing?, what’s the world coming to?, ok, I’m leaving, I won’t say an Our Father more, not another credo, let that whore mother of that little monster who just snuck in here pray them, I’m going, I’m going, I swear, I’ll go whistling, whistling hard and strong so I can’t hear myself, so I can’t think, I’ll leave you the tortillas here, I won’t sell them today now, I’m going, whistling softly as if it were night time, deepest night time, the night time for clouds, whistling so much to not hear myself, damn it…
Translated by Katie Brown