Marin Mălaicu-Hondrari is a novelist, poet and translator. The Flight of Woman Over Man, his first volume of poetry, won the Cluj Writer’s Union debut prize. His poetry has been published in various anthologies. His first novel, The Book of all Intentions, has become a cult novel among poets in Romania, where Mircea Cărtărescu has compared it to Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. He lived in Spain for five years and has a strong affinity for Spanish and Latin American literature. He has translated Vargas Llosa (poetry and novels), Roberto Bolaño (poetry), Alejandra Pizarnik (poetry), and Nicanor Parra (poetry) among others. He has also published an anthology of his poetry Two Days’ Distance (poetry, 2011). He is the author of three novels: Apropierea (Cartea Românească, 2010), Lunetistul (Polirom, 2013) and Războiul mondial al fumătorilor, 2015). He has just finished the screenplay for Apropierea, which will be filmed by director Tudor Giurgiu . With a close group of friends, he organizes one of Romania’s most important poetry festivals every summer in Bistrița.
Cross Hairs: 833 Meters
Translated by Jean Harris
The short story was first published on the online literary journal BODY.
Roberto Bolaño says a poet can stand anything, and it’s worth writing poetry for that reason alone. I don’t know if Bolaño’s right. Still, he doesn’t say that only certain poets can stand anything, so…maybe if I were a poet, even a mediocre one, I might have experienced Mami’s death another way. All I know is, I had a mother who nursed me. Then she died. And I had another mother who took care of me without our ever having seen each other. I call the second mother Mami. And one day I found that she’d died too.
The day before yesterday, I started feeling alone in a completely new way. I was staring into space, sighting down the length of those electric cables that hang from wooden posts. I kept seeing how the light turned to evening, and the more the light diminished, the more I expected something to happen. It was a diffuse, imprecise desire without having anything to do with any real, unfulfilled expectation. I’m satisfied with my life. It was only that I didn’t feel like going back home. Something was making me go back to the car. Then I came across the photo in a rundown bus stop. Two phone numbers were written underneath. You could ring whichever if you had any information related to the woman in the picture. I tore the poster into as many pieces as possible, and I went into the village to find out what was known, officially.
I had to stop the car a few times on the road: I felt I was suffocating, and I rolled down the car windows in vain; in vain: I no longer held back my tears. She had died, the one to whom I owed everything, everything I am. Lamenting, alone in the car with sounds of my own pain, I got where I was going—the bar—and when I got there I flipped through newspapers and eavesdropped while throwing a couple of beers down my throat. No one in the bar—and so, no one in the village—seemed to know more than what the press was saying. Two days ago, a woman had been found dead in the desert. Shot. Her identity hadn’t been established, but I knew who she was, and I knew the motive for the crime, and I could have raised a hand to ask for a moment of attention and told them all these things, but I saw myself beyond the beer, and I went outside without answering the guy who shouted Adiós, Carlos behind me. Mami had died. I was in mourning, and suffering made me intransigent. I drove carelessly, clumsy as if I were just learning, as if my driving skills had gone up in smoke with Mami’s last breath. I came back to myself only after I had left the abandoned gas station well in my rear. I thought of going to Carolina’s. In the end, though, I decided to feel sorry for myself by myself. I went into the house and, for the first time since I’d been living there, I bolted the door. First, I prayed for Mami’s soul. I looked at the moon, and I asked God to have mercy on her. Then I closed the blinds, and I reread all the eighteen letters I’d had from Mami. I read them without sitting down for one second, and several of them confirmed what I suspected: I knew who had shot her. I knew exactly, now.
Camelia didn’t sense my presence when I walked into the room, and I got it right away that she wasn’t just sleeping; she was drunk as well. Warm and sour, the stagnant air kept the orange lamplight from brightening the entire room. I sat beside Camelia on the edge of the bed where she’d collapsed fully dressed, without the least desire or ability left, so now her dress hung crookedly from her thin shoulders. One of her shoes had fallen on the sheet. Black streaked her face. She’d wept before sleeping, or maybe she’d cried in her sleep and her tears had left mascara trails on her cheeks. She was breathing with difficulty like an asthma patient. Toxins emanated from all her pores. I dumped my knapsack on an armchair and waited for her to come round. My initial detachment transformed itself imperceptibly somehow into sadness, or maybe it was only nostalgia for the times when Camelia was my lover, and we were both very young, and, like all young people, felt immortal. Only, nine years had gone by since then, which meant it was nine years since she’d left me.
There, where there’s now a supermarket, the villa rose across the river—the villa Ricardo had rented. After he came, it was called it the monkey villa. No one knew exactly when and how Ricardo had appeared in that spot so sufficiently withdrawn that any foreign presence would attract attention. What’s certain is, my imagination went wild, and so did my pals’ from back then.
My friends and I were a group of young people barely out of our teens, and at the time we had just two obsessions: computer games and the monkey house. The rumor went around that Ricardo was a spy. We used to stand watch to see him pass over the bridge in his car with drive-by tint on the windows. Then we’d get close to the house, and, fascinated, we’d watch the animals in the hall through the long, glass walls. There were seven or eight small monkeys—overflowing with life. They screamed a lot. They bobbed from rope to rope, from chair to chair, from one step to another. They were completely giddy, and they didn’t seem to do anything all day but use every last thing in that hall to leap around, as often as possible. They never stopped fidgeting, even while stuffing themselves with bananas from Ricardo’s wife, a Japanese, or Vietnamese or Korean lady, I never knew which, exactly, nor did we ever manage to agree among ourselves. She was Asian, and she had the glacial beauty of Asiatic women. Only, we could never get close enough to the villa to see in greater detail because the dogs would sense our presence, and all hell would break loose. They were mastiffs. Big as calves, all seven hurled themselves at the fence and bared their fangs the instant a stranger approached the house. We often followed them with binoculars from the roof of the movie theater or, when Camelia and I were alone, from the branches of some weeping willows nearby, and we saw how they rollicked around the immense courtyard or lapped up huge bowls of meat from the slaughter house where Camelia’s parents worked. Jim, Ricardo’s son, would show up when the animals skirmished among themselves. After he separated them with difficulty, he’d put each in his kennel and sweep the courtyard, wash up the blood, and gather the filth and tufts of hair. It was said that Jim was Belgian, and we would eventually find that he really had been born in Belgium before his parents moved to South Africa, where his father had been director of the National Lottery. But we used to blindly reject any kind of information, as if the myth of the monkey villa kept us alive, and in many regards, that’s how it was. The rumor that Ricardo was a spy was replaced by the one where he was a mafia guy who had got out of line—or not necessarily. However you sliced it, the big idea was that to save his life he’d been forced to hideout there, at the end of the world. Rumor had it, he wasn’t taking care of all those huge beasts because he was an animal lover but because the mastiffs were protecting his family. Then a new rumor popped up: Ricardo had fleeced the South African National Lottery, which seemed plausible enough, and he was hiding out to get off scot free.
The monkey villa gradually lost its charm, and it turned into a nightmare for me because I was seeing Camelia—with increasing frequency—sitting to Jim’s right in the car on its way to the slaughterhouse or coming back. She was coming to me less and less. If I went to look for her, she was getting harder and harder to find, and when I did find her she seemed bored with my sniper tales, the true ones and the stories related to computer games, till it got to the point of her tapping her foot in annoyance and shouting that she DID NOT LIKE firearms. She was still sleeping with me, but she was getting increasingly distracted, and if I said something bad about Jim’s family she’d get really mad. In the end, I had to accept that she had left me for Jim. I continued to love her. I loved her for a long time after they left the monkey villa for somewhere in Greece, after which they moved to the United States, as the rumor went, but by then I was no longer interested. I didn’t love her anymore.
She really had moved to the United States, again in a kind of villa with monkeys and dogs, but much better guarded this time—a fortress with electronic monitoring systems and several Latin-American watchmen, a useless precaution, so to speak, as my presence near Camelia’s sleeping body proved.
When Camelia woke, she felt around for a bottle of mineral water near the head of the bed. She drank thirstily with noisy swallows. She set eyes on my rucksack then and on me right after that. Her gaze grew animated all of a sudden. Hungover and drowsy as she was, she’d recognized me in a flash .
“My God” she whispered hoarsely, “Gabriel, how did you get in here?”
I told her, “I used my imagination.”
“The Limits of Control,” she quipped in English, getting my point about the Jarmusch flick. When she smiled, I had to look away because there was something repellent in her gaze, so bloated by sleep and alcohol. I took the shoe off the bedclothes and set it on the rug near its mate. “Look,” I said, “I can’t stay too long.”
“I’m going to the bathroom. Please wait for me.”
Camelia landed on her feet with surprising agility. When she got to the bathroom, she stuck her head around the door and told me she’d be back right away. I asked her where Jim was then, and she told me she didn’t know.
“If he’s not at home…”
“He’s not,” I broke in.
“Then…I never know where he is.”
Camelia disappeared into the bathroom for real, this time. I got the package out of the rucksack and stayed there with it on my knees. I looked at the pair of shoes until Camelia came back wrapped in a bathrobe and wearing a fresher looking face. Then I offered her the package, which I held out to her: “From your son,” I said. Not touching the packet, she looked at it, confused. “From my son? Gabriel, I don’t have children.”
“Carlitos…? Does the name mean anything to you?” Carlos? ‘It’s for Mami,’ he said when he gave it to me.”
Camelia lit up with a big smile and ripped the packet out of my hand. “Oh Lord, Carlitos, yes, Carlitos, but how…” She was trying feverishly to open the package. Sitting as slowly as if she were gradually submerging herself in frozen water, she let herself down on the edge of the bed. But now she was pulling the string that did up the package.
“Leave it for now,” I told her. “You’ll undo it another time.” She seemed not to hear me. She was pulling that string in all directions until I got up and put my hand on her shoulder, and then she looked straight in my eyes.
“Listen to me. I have to leave the day after tomorrow. Till tomorrow, think if you want to send him something. I’ll come back tomorrow night. Got it?” She nodded her head to say she’d understood.
The next night she wasn’t sleeping, though she was drunk enough—she, who’d not drunk a drop of alcohol for as long as we’d been together. “I was expecting you,” she said and moved to embrace me, though my coldness evidently made her think twice, and she held back. She’d prepared an envelope for Carlitos. She wanted to know how I’d met him, but I couldn’t stay there too long: “It’s kind of a long story,” I said, “I’ll tell it to you another time. Right now, I really do have to leave. I’m sorry.” Though I was lying, I didn’t feel bad; I couldn’t stand seeing the state she’d wound up in, how low she’d fallen, but then I started thinking, I’m doing this for Carlos. I had promished him that I’d visit Mami, as he called her. “I’ll be back,” I told her. “I’ll wait for you,” she whispered. And I came back—several times a year, actually.
I didn’t have to slip into the house anymore; Camelia would come out. We once spent several days together. I told her the story of how I had met Carlitos, who was just a little boy at the beginning, a kid who stuck to me like a shadow. I think the first time I saw him was near the English military encampment. I had nothing to do with the English, but I’d had to receive a gun from them.
“So you go on liking firearms,” Camelia said.
“More than ever,” I told her. Then I went on telling her about Carlitos. I was supposed to spend several days in a hideout in order to eliminate a general, “a possible dictator,” they told me. I told them not to wear themselves out. I didn’t need any ethical or moral motivation. I was paid to eliminate the target, and that was enough for me. Meanwhile, Carlitos had slipped into my hiding place. I grabbed his hands and busted his lips with my right elbow, which made him open his mouth, and I stuffed my elbow in his mouth as a gag. I was thinking, maybe this is a kid-trap. It had happened so many times. A kid would come, take you in his arms and a bomb would go off. But the kid I’d imobilized was shaking like a reed. He was on the verge of tears from terror or pain, and I felt pity for him, so I made him sit on my rucksack, and I asked him in Spanish what he was called, and he told me his name was Carlos, and then I asked him what he wanted from me, and why had he been following me for so long, and he said that he wanted to ask me something. He’d heard that I was a Romanian: “You are Romanian, aren’t you?” he asked me, and I told him that yes, I was Romanian, and I told him that there were more Romanians around there—and there were plenty of Romanian soldiers. But he said that he didn’t trust them. He’d tried, but he realized that they weren’t taking him seriously, and I said, why did he think I would take him seriously, and he said I was different. “You’re the mercenary; all of us around here know you,” and when he said all of us, he made a sign with his hand to point all around, and then I looked along the length of the street, as I had done hundreds of times in recent days, and I realized suddenly that that city was increasingly deserted. I saw scorched trees, rutted asphalt, garages with broken metal doors, balconies of which nothing remained but bits of cement held up by wrought iron rods, a bicycle with a contorted frame, some cardboard boxes among which a little girl with a pussycat had played yesterday morning, while over night the wind had driven the boxes under a burned out pickup truck, which is something I’d seen for years and years in different countries and that we’ve all seen, but here no one was stopping, maybe only those who found themselves with a bullet in their skull, put there by someone like me, or those who were taking photos or passing further on, just as I was eliminating the target: today a possible dictator, a demented general two months later, then a hostile sniper, then a spy and I’d pass on, ever more sure of myself, increasingly to be trusted by various governments or private persons, and increasingly a hero for a kid like Carlitos. Then the kid told me, he had this mother in Romania. He explained something to me. I didn’t understand too well until finally he took out an envelope, and from the envelope he took a photo that he held out to me, and from that rectangle of paper that had lost its shine you smiled at me Camelia, an smile as unclear as our life together had been, but a smile, after all.
“I’m glad he survived,” said Camelia.
“He survived, and that’s all due to you. He’s a very good kid, smart, and I’ve had very good luck with him.”
Then one evening, or maybe one morning—one morning rather, because she was more voluble in that part of the day—Camelia looked at me with her big eyes that were begining to regain their beauty and their shine, and she told me that she was sorry. I knew what she was talking about, but I didn’t find anything suitable to say.
“I know that I hurt you badly, Gabriel,” she went on, “but I didn’t want that. I was a fool, first of all, and a coward after that, and now I’ve gotten to the point where I just don’t give a damn. I fell into a terrible trap. You still remebember our suppositions about the monkey villa, each more fantastic than the next? Well, any one of them might be reliable, and believe me, I really know it now. Right after Jim’s parents accepted me, I was forbidden to leave the house unaccompanied. After we married, it was even worse. I couldn’t see anyone anymore, I wasn’t even allowed to see my parents, and Jim quickly had enough of me, even before we moved to Greece. I was afraid that he would kill me, but it was a bit better there. I was mounting diamonds on jewlery. That’s what I did all day, but evenings I looked at the oranges—I stayed by the edge of the pool and I’d just keep reading. I read a lot, like in the old days, except that, you know, books are like people: you have to talk about them, and I don’t have anyone to do that with. We were living with Jim’s grandparents—surrounded by dogs, others, of course, but just as ferocious. I did my shopping online. It was useless to tell them that I missed my parents. They pretended to understand. Jim even used to say we’d go to see them in the summer, but summer would come and something would come up and then we weren’t going any more. Then he’d tell me that we’d certainly go for the winter holidays, and the holidays would go by and Easter and the next summer would come, and I felt more and more powerless. Then I convinced Jim to adopt a foster child abroad. I know that all the rich people do this, or they donate money for medecine, or to save the planet, whatever, just to set their consciences at ease, and I believe Jim has a very heavy conscience because he promised to let me adopt “financially”—but only financially—as many foster children as I liked, but only after we moved to the United States. His parents moved first, then we did, and not so much as one week after we moved the house in Greece was blown up. Then I really adopted two children, financially, as Jim had insisted, as if I would have wanted to adopt in any other way. Hey, if I wanted a child, couldn’t I just get pregnant. But neither of us wanted children, thank God: I because I no longer understoond what was happening to me, and Jim maybe because he didn’t feel capable of defending them. I adopted two foster children and I felt more at peace. There was Carlos and another one from Guatemala, but that one died around two months after adoption. I don’t even know what he was called anymore. And I began to drink, to commit suicide slowly, as they say. For about a year I only drank in the evening and at night. Then I began to drink in the afternoon too, and now I start in the morning, as you see.”
Camelia fell silent and I realized that she was waiting for me to say something. I told her I was really listening. “Tell me more,” I said, but Camelia didn’t say another word, and when I looked at her I saw that she was weeping. Thick tears coursed dizzily down her cheeks while she crumpled a bit of Kleenex in her fist. I said I had to go. “You always have to go. You always say that.” She was right, and sometimes I really did have to leave; other times, no. Right then, I really didn’t have to, but I couldn’t stand to see her crying anymore. Time had passed. There wasn’t much to do anymore. Suddenly, as I passed close to her, she took me by the hand and made me bend over.
“Do you kill anything other than politicians and soldiers?” she whispered quickly.
“Anybody,” I said. “Everybody has his price.”
“Anybody?” she asked, still not looking at me.
“Good,” she replied, “I’ll think about this. I’ll make you a proposal.” Then she let go of my hand, and I took off. After more than half a year she made me an offer I couldn’t refuse. Then she doubled the sum and wanted us to meet. We were seeing each other for the last time. More precisely, she was seeing me for the last time. I would have to see her again without her knowing. She looked more put together this time and had even refrained from drinking.
“This is for Carlos,” she told me and held out an envelope that looked like all the others she’d sent. “I’ve put in a photo too, as he asked me.” She fell silent for a moment. Then she said, “Do you remember the Sonora, Gabriel? The best place to die?”
Of course I remembered it. I’d called it the desert of assassins and suicides.
“I’m thinking of going there—to Mexico—for several days. I’ve been looking it up. There’s a village, Belano, and near the village there’s a bus station, and then there’s an abandoned gas station. Do you think we could meet there, at the gas station? I’m leaving next week, and I’ll stay at least five days. I’ll wait for you every morning and every evening from eight till ten.”
The next week I opened the envelope for Carlos. I took out the photograph of Camelia. I made several copies. Then I put the photograph and everything else that was for Carlos into another envelope, and I flew several thousand kilometers from one side of the ocean to the other, and at 8:45 in the evening I sat on a boulder and I started to look for Camelia through the telescopic site. She’d gone a little distance away from the abandoned gas station. She’d gone out on the phantom highway, and now she was walking slowly ahead into the desert. I called her, and she looked all around, surprised. When she turned to face me, she was smiling and she seemed much younger. She wore a light summer dress. I closed my eyes, took a deep breath, and then I opened my eyes and I fired, from 833 meters, half a mile away.
It was dark by the time Gabriel entered the house with his old rucksack thrown over his shoulder. He gave me an envelope from Mami.
“The last,” he said.
I said, “I know.”
We sat on the sofa. He dozed, I think. I drank some beer and thought about Mami. Then I realized that whoever killed Mami had also killed someone else, maybe on the same day, certainly in another place. And he had done it for Mami.
When he woke, I put a hand on his shoulder and I asked him: “Jim?
Gabriel told me, “From 1,241 meters. Now you’re an orphan.” Then he went out in front of the house and looked at the sky, and he asked me, or he asked himself out loud if it would rain that night or tomorrow, if he would ever get to see rain again, if it would ever rain again in this world, even after thousands of years. When I woke, he had gone. Then I left too.