What follows is an excerpt from Caballo fantasma, the award-winning novel by Karina Sosa Castañeda. Originally published by Almadía in Mexico City (2020), the translation is not yet under contract.
Although the novel begins with these seven words—“My mother died six hundred days ago”—the unusual thing about the protagonist’s opening comment is that she never really knew her mother Leonora. Part fictionalized memoir, this short novel, written in pristine prose, tells the story of how a young woman finds ways to grapple with her mother’s former absence and new ghostly presence, a mother who abandoned her at a young age and yet seems to come alive in death; the mysteries surrounding her life haunt her daughter Ka, short for Karenina, from the Tolstoy novel. Ka writes and reads her way through this unusual loss as she makes entries in her diary and searches for clues—literary and real—about her childhood, her mother… and horses, one of the few things she knows Leonora adored.
Ghost Horse, its title in English, also delves into the psychological and philosophical processes of a quirky young woman: Ka’s fierce independence and nonconformity, her love of books and libraries, her search for meaning and identity, but also her lies and deception. The book explores these depths through short chapters ranging from a few lines to a few pages in length, chapters that move from past to present and back again, and from self-contained scenes with her boyfriend to quotes from books and snippets of writers’ life stories, making Ghost Horse a booklovers’ tale but also a tale of lovers: Ka seems to never sleep with her boyfriend yet does sleep with another’s partner. The author weaves together a sophisticated tale of memory, longing, dreams, death, ghosts, loss, desires, and secrets. As she does so, the reader slowly comes to doubt the reliability of the narrator: has the story all been a dream? And therein lies the intrigue of Ghost Horse and the nature of good fiction: both pull readers into someone else’s very particular world and out of their own for a just awhile.
Without a doubt, Sosa’s novel, with its pared-down structure, exquisitely chosen words, and sui generis worldview, is a literary gem that will intrigue English-speaking audiences.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
The horse’s form represents the best part of
humans. I have a horse in me that rarely
expresses itself. But when I see another horse
then my horse comes alive. Its form speaks.
* * *
My mother died six hundred days ago. I have not been able to cry about it. Today, I’ve come alone to a hotel that used to be a convent. A former convent where Italo Calvino wrote, “Oaxaca has the sound of an h…” the first words of “Under the Jaguar Sun.”
I think about all kinds of absence. I’m ruthless: at heart, my mother’s death is just an excuse to write. One more way to alleviate my angst. I’m in this place because of my impossibility: I have no one to cry with and: “What is death without tears?”
At this hotel, I seem like a distracted tourist. I got a room to spend the night. I have some black pants in my bag and blue velvet shoes. I think about Miyako Ishiuchi, the Japanese woman who photographs objects for each of her series. I could make a series that brings together my absent mother’s objects. But perhaps every single one of her things has vanished from the world. I hope so. I hope all objects belonging in life to those now dead vanish from the world.
I didn’t bring a picture of Mama to this hotel. Not even a book. Only the diaries I’ve written over the last ten years, which I call An Insignificant Woman. I make notes:
“I want to hear the voices, up close, of these silent tourists who barely make a sound, rising from the balcony to my bed. I want to drink anisette with coffee beans. Like Onetti did.
Onetti smoked all the time and when he spoke, his speech was unhurried; he always preferred silence. Mama is dead and she left me an idea: the idea that her life was closely linked to the life of horses.”
I knew nothing about my mother. I hardly knew her name. I knew that we separated because it was best. Because she was fragile, because of my father’s temperament, because for my mother I belonged to another life. My father’s life.
But her absence, my mother’s absence, only hit me in the moment they told me: Your mother is dead. Never before.
Mama had her reasons. And my father never felt like talking about it. That’s how we grew up: my father and I, together, knowing that a woman, absent like a ghost, had brought me into the world. And that was enough.
I’d like to say that I’ll have a smoke and hang a sign on the door that says: I’m Not Here. But you can’t smoke at this hotel—and besides, no one would come to look for me. Least of all here. I write a phrase from Onetti in my diaries: “It’s true I don’t know how to write, but I write about myself.”
* * *
Curzio Malaparte, Sangue:
“What disturbed me most, from when I was three or four years old, was that I felt surrounded by mysterious facts. From morning to night, every time I opened my mouth I asked for an explanation about some mystery: Who made the wall? Who made the horse? Who made the car? Who made the sky?”
* * *
The first time I considered in any sort of defined way looking for evidence of the horses was the day N left my life forever.
I might say N was a ghost. I say it to console myself. But I know I’m lying. Of course N exists: he has a body, he walks in the world, like those images in my memory where horses sleep, curled up among stones, with their warm breath, like a very distant recollection; N’s voice and hands come and go from my memory to the void.
In my unimportant journals there are things about N. But it’s as if his absence meant more.
There are some poems in my diary that I copied from old books, things I underlined from my readings, photographs, cuttings, words, notes, shopping lists, to-do lists, lists of desires, birthday lists, lists of numbers. The addresses of people I’ve stopped seeing.
My father hates lists. He says they have no purpose at all in the world. I make lists to unhinge my father. I unhinge him in secret.
My father, just like almost everyone else in the world, knows nothing about me.
* * *
Can someone who has lived within you, even for a moment, stay there forever?
* * *
I believe N has the same birthday as Sándor Márai. I read Sándor Márai’s journals all the time. I think about his final years as he endured the slow death of his wife Lola. I think about the day Sándor Márai decided to take his life, about how someone can come to know that today is the day.
I don’t want to understand Sándor Márai. I think about him strolling in the Vérmező Park while the coachman smokes on the street. Márai would go into a café to read the newspaper and sit quietly.
Outside, his driver and horse wait for him. The coachman’s horse would just barely move, like an old mountain of black, velvety stones.
A horse is also a mound of velvety stones that await movement.
* * *
It’s been quite a few days since my father has stopped talking to me at dinner. Sometimes I tell him lies. I tell him I’ve saved up almost enough money to leave the country. My father gets all enthusiastic and says there’s no need for me to save money; I could go wherever I want because that’s what he has worked for.
You deserve everything. You’ll see, that’s what he says, and then I tell him more lies. I tell him about Kevin. My father’s pleased with the idea that Kevin will be with me for the rest of my life. I tell him that’s how it will be. I tell more lies to make my father happy.
My father has no idea I’m looking for something. He doesn’t know I’m immersed in things about dead people, ghosts, lies, horses…
I want to enunciate a long sentence that jolts him. I want to make my father gather up the courage to give me an answer. Any answer.
* * *
Do you like horses? Your mother loved horses.
The man who lived by my mother’s side for the last twenty years tells me this. I think about how they met. I think about it at this very moment. I smell paraffin and we’re in a funeral home that’s too big; the carpet’s the color of human blood. In the other room, there’s apple pound cake, coffee and chocolates—a present for those who came to the viewing. I think about the Ganges, about food stalls and death floating in the water. I feel like throwing up right here. I’m drugged. Before I arrived I took a Lexapro; I’ve taken it a couple of times. I feel like I’m going to faint but something inside me resists.
I look at that man, my mother’s widower, and I know he’s not a ghost. He slurs his words. He barely manages to say something to me that I try not to hear. His green eyes and stiff body. What kept them together? A TV actor and my mother.
I think about that man’s tears. Who was my mother? What is a horse in this world? What is a horse for me? A horse in the world…
In the coffin, my mother seemed like a sweet woman. Her eyes were shut. I wish those eyes would look at me now. Her clasped hands reminded me of mine. The black dress seemed like that of a serious, old woman.
What did that small woman, always sick, with trembling breath and frazzled nerves, have to do with horses?
* * *
After I finished college and came back home, Papa insisted I live with him. I stayed for a week until I found a new place.
On the fifteenth of September I moved into an apartment on Calle Hidalgo. But there was no need for a moving truck. I gave away the books I had bought during four years of college to my friends at school. I left others for the new tenant, who was, according to the landlords, a dentistry student. The only thing I kept was an ancient edition of the Decameron by Boccaccio. That and my clothes. My old black boots.
How many objects fit into a suitcase when you’re going home?
How many things would you take to a desert island… in Oaxaca?
A book, some boots and a coat.
* * *
September was terribly rainy in Oaxaca. Three weeks had passed, and I still didn’t understand what I was doing there.
During that first month, I awoke some nights thinking I was at the apartment in the other city.
I thought about the vintage mirror in front of the bed. I missed the yellowish light of the lamp I bought in an antique store when I first got to the city. At the time, I was twenty-three.
There, in that college-student apartment, it was like being in a cave. The walls were humid. I liked my room—and the narrow living-dining-room with the new sofa bed where I’d sleep sometimes. Every once in a while Kevin would sleep there. I recall that aside from the lamp, I bought a couple of pillows, some spoons, a few plates, a three-tiered bookcase (very cheap and wobbly) and a blue plastic curtain that separated the shower from the toilet.
I liked that apartment where I’d occasionally bring flowers. Where smoking was allowed… even though I didn’t smoke.
I liked that it was a house inside a house: the owners lived downstairs, at the end of the hall decorated with artificial plants.
I liked being someone else within those blue walls.
In Oaxaca, in the spacious, well-lit apartment where the scent of the lemon tree on the patio wafted inside at night, I missed my cave, the humidity, being a foreigner in a city where you can be a ghost, where you’re always alone. That’s what I missed: not belonging.
* * *
In March, I was trying to make everything seem normal. I thought I should find an escape route.
I started working, thanks to the recommendation of my father’s friend, at an office, a building with air conditioning and ten small cubicles in which each of the young architects replicated the idea of a home designed expressly for the survivors of this country in ruins.
It was the six-month anniversary of my new life.
The trumpet trees were blooming, those yellow trees that bathe everything with living light. I thought about Kyoto. I discovered that a few blocks from my apartment there was a quiet library, its patio with a trellis of bougainvillea that trapped the murmurs from the outside world.
The library had a section on entomology, another on Gothic art, one on Italian painters. It was like entering an infinite labyrinth. It made me think of Alexandria.
Having a social life didn’t interest me, but sometimes I’d go drink at La Independencia Bar. There I could pretend to be someone else. There no one asked questions. Everyone was doing their own thing, drinking on the cheap and eating run-of-the-mill appetizers, pickled hot dogs or fried food, and singing banda songs from Sinaloa. It was a place where you could disappear for a while and the next day there’d still be no answers.
* * *
I wish I had pets: fish, for example. A round fish bowl on the table next to the fruit bowl. But that was absurd, in my mind I had the idea of leaving, of fleeing. Pets tie you down to cities, they’re never happy somewhere else. No fishbowl or fruit bowl sits on the table.
May in particular was hellishly hot. Perhaps it was the heat. Perhaps it was because the office had a new project to design a government building. A huge budget. The head architect said he wanted something novel. I thought of Zaha Hadid. She was popular. I liked her work. But the boss said no. He showed us a sketch: a round building with a lot of glass. Round cement. Like a cake. I thought about Doric columns. As a joke, I told him, Doric columns for the hallway. He said, You’re a genius. I was ashamed. I looked at his pearly smile with a single golden tooth. I was afraid of ending up as an architect who likes designing white elephants.
It was then, when the karaoke thing happened, that N and I met.