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africa: Rebecka HelwegAfrica on the Horizon
(Africa en el horizonte)
by Carlos Gardini

tr: Graham Thomson


Daniel ran to the workshop when he heard the hammering. It had a rhythm, a discordant melody which announced that his father was finishing the paper plane. The normal hammering was regular, dully monotonous, just another noise in the house, like the creak of a door or the groan of the pipes. But when his father was finishing a job, each blow had a joyful sound that Daniel had learned to identify.
      He ran downstairs, through the living room and the kitchen, and opened the inside door to the garage his father used as a workshop. There was a smell of cigarettes and mate leaves and the familiar jumble of tins, tools, papers and bits of fabric covering the table and the shelves. His father was wiping his hands on a rag.
      "Is it ready?" Daniel asked from the door.
      As soon as he went in he would see the paper plane on the side wall. He knew that, but he didn’t dare put his head round the door without confirmation. He didn’t want to be let down.
      His father nodded, smiled, pointed to the wall that Daniel couldn’t see from the other side of the door. Daniel closed his eyes, felt his way through the door, went over to his father, then turned around.
      He opened his eyes and he saw it.
      The paper plane.
      The paper plane wasn’t really a paper plane, just the name the two of them had given to his father’s secret project: an enormous kite that could carry a man hanging from its cross-struts.
      Up until then it had been a dream, a fantasy, a hope. Now it was a rhombus of paper and fabric, gigantic and irregular, with a silhouette like a bird, that hung majestically on the wall of the workshop. The rainbow, thought Daniel. They lived beside the sea and he often saw a rainbow, and now he saw all the colours of the rainbow in the kite. Those colours promised a new sky, a new horizon. Even the rough grey wall against which the kite rested looked like a sky. It was magic, so magic that Daniel felt a doubt, and in feeling a doubt he felt mistrustful.
      "It is going to stay hung up there for always?" he asked.
      "What do you mean, hung up?"
      "Hung up like now. On the wall."
      His father didn’t answer right away. He looked at the kite, he poured himself a mate.
      "But it isn’t hung up," he said. "It’s as if the wall was the sky."
      Yes, Daniel had had the same thought, but he wasn’t happy with the answer. It was a trick, and he knew it.
      His father knew it too.
      "Some day," he said at last. "Some day we’ll fly it." He pointed to the cloudy sky through the workshop window. "As high as those clouds."
      Daniel scrutinized the clouds, an incandescent haze.
      "Can it go that high?"
      "That high, and higher."
      "What would you see from up there?" Daniel asked.
      "From up there?" his father repeated.
      Daniel was afraid his father wouldn’t know how to answer him, and he needed to be told what could be seen from up there, just as much as he needed to fly the kite. He needed that answer even if it was a lie, but he knew that if his father answered him he wouldn’t tell him a lie.
      His father put a hand on his shoulder and spun the globe he kept on one of the workshop tables, in the midst of rags and tools, a yellowing, grease-spotted globe. He put his finger on where they were, the Atlantic coast of the province of Buenos Aires. His finger moved across the Atlantic and arrived at Africa.
      "From up there," he said "you would see Africa on the horizon."
      "Africa!" Daniel exclaimed, thinking of the lions, zebras and giraffes he had seen in the zoo.
      And thinking of Africa, he looked carefully at the kite. For a moment he forgot the tools, buckets, tins of paint, spare parts and bits of old junk his father accumulated in that part of the house he used as an inventor’s workshop and also as a repair shop for his odd jobs. Yes, the wall was the kite’s sky. If you looked at it with your eyes half closed, the kite flew in that sky, and the untidy workshop, with its smell of grease, rust and paint, was a world of wide horizons, a globe spinning in velvety space.
      The kite was as wide as a person with their arms outstretched and as tall as a grown-up. The harness was an old belt and the hand-grips were old leather straps. The frame was made of thick canes, and the skin was of strong, opaque paper, combined with cloth to give it touches of colour.
      Daniel had not the slightest doubt that it would fly. His father had said so, and he trusted his father. His father had showed him things that no one else could have shown him, things to do with birds and the spirit of flight. Birds, he said, were not the pinnacle of evolution as far as intelligence was concerned, but there was more to life than intelligence. In the coordinated movement of a flock of birds, nature exalted itself. Daniel adored that phrase, even though he didn’t really understand it. He liked the way his father, with his rough, dirty hands, could talk like a schoolmistress, better than a schoolmistress. It didn’t bother him that he used words he didn’t understand, because in a way he understood everything. And unlike the schoolteachers, his father knew what he was talking about, and he never lied. Aeroplanes with engines, his father used to say, were crude and clumsy from the point of view of the spirit, but they embodied the dream of flight. Aeroplanes with engines were products of the intelligence, but deep down they wanted to be birds.
      Daniel treasured those words —nature, spirit, intelligence, dream of flight— and repeated them to himself every night like a prayer. It was wonderful to understand without understanding. And he understood without understanding that his mother embodied the spirit of flight. When a relative of any of his friends died, their parents told them: "They’re in Heaven now". When Daniel’s mother died, his father had said to him: "Now she’s a bird". Daniel liked his mother being a bird, and his great hope was to fly with her some day. He thought about how some children had their parents all of their lives, and he had had barely ten years. No doubt she, too, found that strange, and would be happy to fly with him.
      "So?" his father asked, interrupting his musing.
      "So what?" Daniel asked.
      "You haven’t told me if you like it," his father said.
      If I like it?, thought Daniel. Liking wasn’t the word. The more he thought about it, he knew he didn’t have a word to say what he felt. And because he couldn’t find the word, he was afraid he wouldn’t say it right and preferred to say nothing.
      His father looked into his eyes.
      "All right," he sighed. "We’ll make a better one."
      Daniel wanted to tell him that he could never make a better one, because there could never be a better one. I love that kite, he thought, surprised at the word. It was love the way love was in the romantic films. It wasn’t a matter of liking. It was something for all your life. He felt like an idiot, because he loved the kite so much he had made it seem as if it was just the opposite, and now he had a lump in his throat. Why couldn’t he talk like his father, who made him understand everything even though he used words he didn’t know?
      His father smiled lazily, patted him on the head and started working on something else.
      That night Daniel went to bed thinking of Africa. Some day he would fly in the kite and he would see the lions, the zebras and the giraffes from up in sky. Then he would tell his father everything he had seen, and make him forget the ridiculous idea that he could improve his masterpiece.
      Thinking of Africa, he couldn’t sleep. He went over to the window and looked at the sea. There was a moon that night, and white crests of foam rolled in to the cliffs. There were a few lights, but only a very few, since it wasn’t the holiday season. On the road there were buses going from Miramar to Mar del Plata, lorries, very few cars.
      A seagull landed on the window-ledge.
      Mama, Daniel thought.
      The seagull that was mama flew off and joined a flock that dropped down towards the water. The light of the moon was reflected by their feathers, and the flight of the seagulls reproduced the undulation of the waves of the sea, which were themselves birds low-flying flight. Nature exalting itself. Daniel wriggled inside the interstices of the phrase, swinging on the u of nature, which was like a current of air, gripping the tips of the x of exalting, which was like the cross-struts of the kite. Rocking himself in the melody of these words, he saw that the only real things were the birds. And the kite, of course, which anyway was a bird, too. Daniel resolved to be as real as them, and fell asleep caressing that decision.
      From that day on, in search of the inspiration to be real, Daniel started looking at the photos stuck on the walls of the garage. He took advantage of the times when his father was away somewhere working in the pick-up. Normally he went out early and didn’t get home until midday; then he went out again after his siesta and didn’t get back until night. As school still hadn’t started, he had plenty of time to look at the photos. Daniel already knew all the names by memory: the Wright brothers at Kitty Hawk, Jorge Newbery’s balloon above the Andes, Amelia Earhart taking off from New Guinea just before she disappeared, Chuck Yeager in the X-1, Yuri Gagarin in a jet similar to the MiG he crashed in. These were photos of noble people, his father used to say, people who had dared to dream. There was also a drawing which depicted the death of Otto Lilienthal in his glider, and a reproduction of a painting in which a peasant is tilling the soil with complete indifference while Icarus falls out of the sky with flapping wings. Daniel was proud of knowing those names his friends had never heard. One of them had said his father was an old crackpot, but others had listened to those stories with interest: Orville and Wilbur Wright taking turns to pilot their machine, Earhart crossing the Atlantic, Gagarin going up into space. His father had taught him to understand their importance, because his father admired those men and women and those machines, but what he loved was not the machines but flight. And the flight he was seeking, he said, was different.
      "Mechanical aeroplanes represent man’s victory within the heaviness of nature," he said to him one day, when he surprised him looking at the photos. "But wings represent the victory over heaviness."
      "Like flying in a kite?" Daniel asked, memorizing his father’s words.
      His father looked at him doubtfully.
      "Yes," he said at last. "Like flying in a kite."
      One morning, when he felt he was ready, Daniel decided to try flying in the kite. The photos had inspired him. He felt, as they had felt, that he was on the threshold of a powerful and profound region, an unknown territory. Surely they must have felt the same way on their explorations.
      Of course his father had forbidden him to touch the kite, but all fathers were nervous, and his more than others. Even his friends had told him so, and his teacher, too, and his aunts. His father was nervous because he was over-sensitive since losing Daniel’s mother. Daniel understood, because he felt the same. He was always afraid his father was going to have an accident, although maybe having an accident wasn’t so bad if he ended up like a bird like his mother.
      So, he shouldn’t take the prohibition seriously. Those grey portraits that looked at him from the peeling wall of the garage represented the overcoming of a prohibition, a victory over the resistance of the air and over gravity. They had flown and he, too, would fly, and he knew that his father would be proud, that he would admire him the way he admired the people in the portraits.
      The sky was clearer and more luminous than he had seen it all summer, and without a doubt he would see Africa on the horizon. His father would put his photo on the garage wall, beside the Wrights, Newbery, Santos Dumont and Gagarin.
      With patience and some effort he lifted down the kite, hoisted it onto his back, walked the three blocks between the house and the cliff, evasively greeted the neighbours who came up to him to ask where he had got a kite like that. It was an ideal day because there was a strong wind and no bathers on the beach, no busybodies to hold up the flight.
      He had a plan. He would tie the rope of the kite to a firmly rooted tree-trunk, at the edge of the cliff, and weight the kite down with stones so the wind wouldn’t blow it away. He would wait until he saw his father’s Ford with its faded paintwork on the road, then he would launch himself into the air and he would see Africa. When his father got there, he would tell him everything he had seen.
       
      ArŠoz had spent hours unblocking pipes, fixing television aerials and trimming gardens. He didn’t like to come home so late, but old DamiŠn had insisted that he have a look at that television of his. It was the second or third time, and in any case the set wouldn’t last much longer. When he got home, he looked with amazement and pleasure at the silhouette outlined against the sky at the edge of cliff: a red, blue and yellow kite like a multicoloured bird. It took him a second to appreciate the size of the kite, two to see that someone was hanging from the frame, three to comprehend that the only kite with those characteristics was the one he kept in his garage.
      He accelerated, miraculously dodged a bus coming head-on, turned the Ford onto the sandy earth, braked so the tyres bit into the dust, jumped out and set off running. He elbowed his way through half a dozen people who were watching without making any attempt to do anything. An old man in swimming shorts told him that the boy had been up in the air for five minutes.
      Five minutes!
      It was a miracle he had stayed up that long. The kite wasn’t built to fly, still less with so much weight on it.
      "Daniel, Daniel, Daniel," he murmured, feeling like an idiot because the only thing that occurred to him was to think of Daniel and of Daniela, his mother, and how he couldn’t lose him, he couldn’t because it wasn’t fair, because he was so young and he was all of her that he had left.
      The only thing he could do was anchor the rope to stop the wind pulling up the root the boy had tied it to. He saw with alarm that the rope had started to fray.
      "I’m going to pull you slowly towards me," he called to Daniel. "Don’t be frightened."
      Daniel called back, but ArŠoz couldn’t understand him. The wind blew the words away. He supposed the boy couldn’t understand him either.
      Daniel shouted something, then repeated it. ArŠoz looked at his face and thought he saw an expression of distress. He didn’t want to look any more. He thought only of pulling in the rope, slowly, very slowly, of getting Daniel back before the wind snatched him away.
      A sudden gust snapped the cross-strut. ArŠoz resisted the pull, closed his eyes. When he opened them, the kite was falling like a stone. His son, arms outstretched, was being thrown against the wall of the cliff. For an instant the wind held him up in the air, a couple of metres from the wall, then immediately changed and flung him with force. ArŠoz closed his eyes again, but he couldn’t close his ears. He heard the creaking of the cane struts and thought of bones, heard the tearing of the paper and cloth and thought of ripping muscles. The boy hung on until the rope snapped and the kite and its bloody pilot plummeted down onto the rocks.
      ArŠoz stood on the edge of the cliff, his feet dug into the earth, the rope in his hand. It had all happened, literally, in a blink of the eye. He still couldn’t take in what had happened.
      If he had seen his son run over by a car he would have cried, he would have got angry, he would have hit the driver, he would have hugged the body to him. But this had left him so taken aback he didn’t know what to feel. He thought that if DamiŠn hadn’t insisted on trying to fix that useless television, he would have got back in time to save Daniel. He thought stolidly of the painful questions that the police, the doctors and the neighbours would ask him. If it hadn’t been for that stupid television, he said to himself, he would have got there in time. Five minutes, he repeated, five minutes.
      And by virtue of those words, time contracted and the days passed in five minutes, five minutes, five minutes. When the police recovered his son’s remains, they also gave him the ruined kite. ArŠoz had the boy cremated and scattered his ashes on the sea, as he had done with the boy’s mother. The remains of the kite were left neglected in a corner of the garage.
      Five minutes. Daniel had gone and he didn’t know how to react. Nor did he know how to react as time passed, as the five minutes stretched themselves again and once more became hours and days and weeks.
      He spent the day shut up in that garage, brooding over ideas that weren’t ideas, thoughts that weren’t thoughts but scraps of phrases that frayed and unravelled like the rope of the kite before the fall. The trouble is that I was too old when I had him, the trouble is that I couldn’t take proper care of him because I was on my own, the trouble is that I’m bad luck and they all die on me. He dreamed that he was shut inside DamiŠn’s old television, that he was a blurred image deformed by crackles of static. He was asking Daniel not to use the kite but Daniel switched the television off. Or he dreamed that the television was in the boy’s room, and he was looking round the room but couldn’t see him. He glanced out of the window and saw the kite flying among the seagulls and tried to get out of the television, but the cathode-ray tube was a cage. Sometimes he woke from that dream in Daniel’s room, asking himself how he had got there. He told himself he had to put things in order. He piled up exercise books, toys and odds and ends on the desk, on the bed, on the floor, but he could never bring himself to put anything away, far less throw anything out.
      He sat down on Daniel’s bed and looked out the window. He saw patches in the sky, his tears getting mixed up with the seagulls. Daniel, Daniela, the seagulls, a flock of shadows.
      After Daniela’s death he had lost his job and he had lost money, but at least he had managed to hold on to that house near Miramar. He decided to live there and support himself the same way he had built the house, by the effort of his hands. ArŠoz was good with tools, and the neighbours appreciated the fact that somebody knew how to paint, lay bricks, fix dripping taps, replace loose tiles, put up aerials, change locks, weld pipes and repair the iron or the television, and who was cheap, as well.
      Now he regretted it. He should never have gone to live there. It was no place for a boy: too few friends, too much solitude. And ArŠoz, with his fantasies, had led him to his death.
      I led him to his death, he said to himself.
      He threw the portraits of the Wrights, Newbery, Gagarin, Santos Dumont into the sea, each and every one of them, and also the print with the picture of Icarus. That peasant was right to carry on working away while the stupid winged hero tumbled down in flames. Who cared about those dreams? Only he did, a loser with no money in the bank, whose only way of making a living was doing odd jobs for the neighbours, who lost his wife and had now lost his son as well. Only he could talk like that about flight, the heaviness of matter and all the rest of that nonsense. He threw the photos into the sea, and as he did he tried to wipe from his memory those idiotic phrases about the elegance of birds and the exaltation of nature. But even so, he couldn’t bring himself to throw away the kite. The kite was the altar where he honoured Daniel’s memory. Every day he prayed to him and asked his forgiveness. Sometimes, after asking for his pardon, he reproached him for his rashness. He would go down to the beach and stay there for hours looking at the sea, thinking, in his darkest moments, that in that sea there were drops of Daniel’s blood, and searching his dazed mind for some way of recovering those drops.
      The water of his blood, the water of his tears, came and went in the immensity of that sea. He would never recover them.
      As well as the bits of old junk, the garage was accumulating empty beer cans and whisky and gin bottles. The face he saw in the little cracked mirror in the garage was unshaven, more and more lined and ashen.
      He no longer dreamed that he was shut up inside the television. That dream was unnecessary. Now he was shut up in the cathode-ray tube of reality.
      He thought of killing himself, naturally. In a drawer he had a Luger that had belonged to his grandfather, and that pistol had a story. His grandfather had fought on the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War, and had taken the pistol from a German officer. He had told the story many times and with many variations, until Spain became, in ArŠoz’s imagination, a misty landscape inhabited by exotic characters, spirits whose species were divided into fascists, republicans, reactionary priests, Nazi officers and generalissimos. His grandfather was another spirit who moved among the rest with the pistol in his hand. As he got older, ArŠoz had never managed to rid himself of that image, not even by reading history books and watching documentaries. His fantasy Spain was more real.
      Perhaps that was why ArŠoz had never taken care of the Luger, in spite of his passion for machines and mechanisms. The weight of the pistol, its metallic solidity, was a restriction and an obstacle. It was like a plane with an engine, which made flight possible but also limited it. Weighing that valuable weapon in his hand, he realized that he thought about Spain the way Daniel had thought about Africa: for him and his son Spain and Africa were fascinating because they were unattainable horizons they could never get to even if they visited the real places. That realization saved him from suicide, spurred him to get out of the house more.
      Daniel’s death had become a legend in the neighbourhood. ArŠoz knew that, because he had heard in passing, in the grocery store or the market, people talking about the "flying boy". For some it was a joke or an insult, for others a tribute.
      "Daniel was a dreamer," DamiŠn said to him one day, as ArŠoz was fixing his television for the hundredth time.
      ArŠoz looked sideways at him, not sure how to react.
      "I spoke to him a couple of times," DamiŠn went on. "A very special boy."
      ArŠoz was silent, concentrating on the television, wondering why the useless old codger refused to die and get it over with.
      DamiŠn offered him a coffee. ArŠoz accepted in silence.
      "Very special," the old neighbour insisted.
      "The tube," ArŠoz said.
      DamiŠn looked at him without understanding.
      "It can be fixed," ArŠoz said, "but the tube has had it. It won’t hold out much longer."
      DamiŠn looked at the screen: the vague image of a vague individual making vague declarations about public expenditure and the national heritage.
      "The picture is fine," DamiŠn said with a smile, pointing at the television. "Why bother improving that character?"
      ArŠoz wanted to smile, but it came out as a grimace.
      "Do something for me," DamiŠn said. "Leave it like that. Don’t fix it. I will pay you for your time and you drink your coffee in peace."
      "I don’t charge for what I haven’t done," ArŠoz said stiffly.
      "Do it for Dani," the old neighbour said. "I would have liked to have had a son like that."
      ArŠoz studied his face, looking for mockery or pity. He found candour and warmth. After an instant’s hesitation, he let the old man embrace him with tenderness and sobbed in silence.
      That day he decided to repair the kite. The altar to his son would look better than ever, with its red, blue and yellow fabric and its cane struts polished. He threw out the piles of empty bottles and cans, and resolved to limit his drinking to a glass of grappa after lunch. He set to work methodically, taking advantage of a time of year when he had fewer neighbours and fewer odd jobs, and slowly but surely he rebuilt the kite.
      When it was finished, he hung it on the same bit of wall where Daniel had seen it for the first time. He had come to a decision. He would hammer in a post in the garden in front of the house and put the kite up every day, like a flag. That flag would represent his son’s dream, the dream his son had died for. It would be the captive balloon that would stop the ill winds.
      That night he slept soundly. He dreamt about his son, as he always did, but this was a nice dream. He dreamt about his wife, too. The two of them were birds, luminous silhouettes that trembled in the air like reflections in water, Daniel repeated the words he had spoken the instant before he died, but now they could be heard clearly, as if the wind in the dream was more benign than the wind on that ill-fated day.
      ArŠoz woke in the early hours of the morning, knowing that he wouldn’t run up the kite in the garden. He could still hear Daniel’s words clearly, but he couldn’t quite understand them. There was only one way to understand what his son was saying.
      Taking advantage of the fact that at that hour there was no one to be seen, he put the kite on his back and set off. He walked down the dirt track, crossed the deserted road, onto the grey, sandy soil of the cliff top. He carried the kite to the edge, tied it to a firm root, breathed in the salty wind until he felt the turbulence of that swelling sea in his lungs. He approached the edge holding the hand-grips of the kite.
      He jumped.
      The wind caught him, filled the paper, buoyed and held him in the air. The rope tensed with a crack.
      ArŠoz rose, soaring to a height that seemed much higher than the rope allowed. A puff of condensed vapour moistened his face. The sky was as incandescent haze. A vision was outlined in that haze, Daniel floating in the wind before he crashed. The expression on Daniel’s face wasn’t distress but jubilation.
      And ArŠoz understood the words.
      "I can see Africa, I can see Africa," Daniel shouted.
      ArŠoz looked down.
      The incandescent haze dispersed.
      ArŠoz saw the surf, boats in the surf, a green, blue and turquoise sea, waves rolling on a beach of white sand. Beyond the beach there was a shining forest where monkeys and gorgeously coloured birds chattered, and beyond the forest a dry, cracked savannah, with lions, zebras and giraffes.
      He knew that Daniel had loved the kite.
      ArŠoz felt a tug in his arms, heard a creak and saw that the canes were breaking. He was falling straight towards the cliff, as if falling from a height of thousands of metres.
      He closed his eyes, but he could still see Africa, Africa. He laughed with happiness. He would fall into the sea, and the water in which Daniel’s blood floated would fill his lungs. The blood of both and Daniela’s ashes would tumble joyfully in the waves that lapped the white beaches of Africa.

© 1999 Carlos Gardini
translated by Graham Thompson                          spanish original
This story may not be archived or distributed further without the author's express permission. Please see our conditions of use.
Carlos Gardini Carlos Gardini

Carlos Gardini was born and lives in Buenos Aires, Argentina. He was a member of the IWP (International Writing Program, University of Iowa). According to a critical comment, his short story "Primera lŪnea" —which won the first prize in a national contest where Jorge Luis Borges and Josť Donoso were members of the jury— "reflects phantasmagorical aspects of the events which took place during the Falkland war in 1982". Another reviewer has mentioned "the nightmarish feeling of alienation, strangeness and vertigo" that permeates his short stories. His novel El Libro de la Tierra Negra won the Axxon Prize and the MŠs AllŠ Prize, and his short novel "Los ojos de un Dios en celo" won the UPC Prize in 1996. His short story "Timbuctķ" won the 1998 Ignotus Prize to best foreign short story, awarded by the Spanish AEFCF (Asociaciůn EspaŮola de FantasŪa y Ciencia Ficciůn). Gardini is a literary translator and has recently translated into Spanish two books by Pulitzer-winning author Steven Millhauser.

Websites. More information and stories.

In English:

The Barcelona Review: Ecstasy

In Spanish:

The Barcelona Review: …xtasis
www.fundacionkonex.com/cgardini.html
http://www.literatura.org/Gardini/Gardini.htm

In Italian:

http://www.delos.fantascienza.com
http://www.neotipi.it/archivio/05/05venezia.html

As he’s a translator, Carlos Gardini can obviously reply to you in English:
cgardini@interlink.com.ar

 

navigation:                                          barcelona review #12   mid-april to mid-june 1999 
-Fiction Prologue by Felipe Alfau
Identity by Felipe Alfau
Summer House by Nuria Amat
Knock on Wood by Frank Thomas Smith
Scar by Lee Klein
Africa on the Horizon by Carlos Gardini
-Poetry Virgil Suarez
-Interview Nuria Amat
-Retrospective  Felipe Alfau
-Regular Features Book Reviews
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