For Milagros Mata Gil
The woman next door was pulling up weeds and planting roses that would flower when summer came. She was an old lady with careful hands and extraordinarily strong legs. She was breaking up the soil with the hoe and bending down repeatedly until she’d loosened the soil enough to pull the plants out by their roots. We said hello shyly, out of politeness, but we knew we had nothing in common so any conversation would be redundant. Meanwhile, I gazed toward the houses, waiting for them. The doors would open slowly according to the disparate rhythms of their inhabitants. At any moment, I thought, Axel and Lisa will open theirs. Lisa will sit on the steps and light a cigarette. Axel will pad out and find a nearby spot where he’ll lie down to enjoy the fine weather.
Lisa will try to talk to me based on the fact that, despite the years between us, we both write. She probably thinks my books are odd, or unnecessary, and of little interest to the world. I’ve flicked through hers in the bookshop in town but they don’t do much for me either. She writes about Celtic legends, Irish sagas and tales of emigrants. I understand, from the blurb on the back cover, that the author succeeds with great virtuosity in blending ancient language with contemporary American English, and the way she links together female narrative voices demonstrates remarkable talent. But I’ve read too many back covers. There will follow, then, a familiar dialogue in which Lisa will ask me if any of my books have been translated into English, and other such phony points of interest. Although I’ll answer her questions amicably, I’ll make a point of changing the subject as soon as possible. People shouldn’t talk about things that don’t concern them.
Axel is nearby, listening to us. He is silent, reserved, fearful. He doesn’t want to be hurt and curls in on himself.
I heard about Axel a long time ago. Milagros told me about him. Actually, she wrote a long series of letters from the Tyrone Guthrie Centre in Ireland. Her letters, sent by fax back then, were narratives in which she described the inhabitants of that town whose name is so awkwardly spelled I hardly dare reproduce it; Annamagarret, maybe, but I’m sure there’s an h missing. Milagros’s letters were beautiful, and it’s a pity they’re fading from the fax paper we used back in the nineties. They were beautiful because through them we established ourselves as writers. Milagros told me about Axel. She’d seen him in that town and felt sorry for him. He looked like a vulnerable outcast. Underfed, too: he had to make do with scraps.
Lisa and I have finished our cigarettes and our impossible literary exchanges, so we both discreetly withdraw to carry on with the job. Her parents live relatively nearby, and she, as a young woman building her future, is looking for somewhere independent and remote to innocently continue with her writing. One day she’ll be successful and will be able to use her royalties to buy “her place” somewhere.
The woman next door has finished planting the rose cuttings around a pergola that brightens up the entrance to Victorian Village, the paradoxically named residential complex, and has disappeared. As far as I know she came here a few years ago and gradually ended up staying. She’s in charge of landscaping. To speculate about her previous life and why she moved here would be an abuse on my part. I do wonder, however, what she does during the winter when gardening work is impossible.
In her letters, Milagros described Axel in detail: his appearance, his character, his frailty. He used to hang around the writers and artists who were staying at the Tyrone Guthrie Centre, particularly at mealtimes. On occasion someone would invite him to join them and he would approach fearfully, suspecting hatred, but also with a last curiosity about whether human beings were capable of love. Milagros perfectly described that feeling of someone still attentive to hope without truly believing in it. I’d had no particular reason to keep all her letters; I never thought I’d reread them, at least not with the interest they stirred in me after I returned. I delved into my archives, anxiously thinking that the thing we seek is precisely what’s lost: an insignificant little thing is magnified in the stress of the search and suddenly we feel like not finding it would be devastating. That’s happened to me at times when I’ve been looking for a photo—very precisely, that photo—which would suggest that it was a particular image of my mother. But I came across the folder where I’d kept Milagros’s letters from Ireland and found the description of Axel which in my mind had become a crucial piece of information.
Milagros had won a UNESCO grant to spend a term at the aforementioned Centre and work on a project about something I no longer recall. It’s easy to imagine how the cold, the mist, the solitude of the language, the isolation of a small rural town and encounters with people entirely unlike those one usually meets are conditions that might incline one toward the literary; her project wasn’t enough, so she turned Axel into a character in her letters. That’s how I read them, and it seemed odd that Milagros was taking an interest in dogs. Anyway, she clearly talked about two of them: Axel and Greta, a bitch. It probably intrigued her that the two dogs were there for no reason, and fought—especially Axel—for survival. But that’s typical of dogs: they just happen to be somewhere, for no obvious reason, and no one knows where they’ve come from. Dogs appear suddenly, and they disappear without a trace.
Through my conversations with Lisa I learnt that she’d also stayed at Tyrone and then lived in Ireland for several years. She fell in love with someone, I assumed, but I didn’t want to pry so I simply expressed my surprise; it was stupid surprise, because living in Ireland for no particular reason might seem strange to me but not to others. I told her a friend of mine had stayed there too but I don’t think it struck her as a coincidence. I didn’t remember the letters then, either. I asked if she’d had Axel since he was a puppy and that was when she told me she didn’t know exactly how old he was. She’d come across him at the Centre under the same circumstances Milagros had already described to me. When the time came for Lisa to return to the United States she felt somehow responsible for Axel and took him with her. That’s why he was there, lying close to us and listening to us talk, staring at Lisa in fear of losing her.
His fear grew when Lisa started getting ready to move. She’d found an apartment in town and decided it would be her home for an indefinite period. She calmly started carrying her belongings outside: her computer, various cushions, a table, different sized suitcases, boxes of books, a quilt, a desk chair. She skilfully piled them up on the lawn in front of her door. She’d moved plenty of times in her life and she went about it with expert precision. Axel brought his sleeping blanket out and dragged it into a corner, just like that character from Peanuts or a Winnicottian child. From there he watched her at work, sulking, protecting himself, curled up. Lisa explained that moving made him really anxious—him, not her—because he was scared he’d be left behind. I said that the dog, surrounded by odds and ends, looked homeless. “In fact,” she told me, “he used to be homeless.” Then she said a friend was bringing a van to help her move and crammed more blankets, boxes of food, and suitcases into her already full car. She still had a room at her parents’ house, she assured me, as if I was doubting it; as if a sudden feeling of vulnerability had overcome her. A place she could retreat to if things didn’t go well. But I think they must have gone well. I’m sure I’ll see Lisa’s name in the New York Times Book Review one day.
When I returned to Caracas I remembered Milagros’s letters and her dog stories. I hunted for them eagerly, as I said, because I wanted to be sure it was the same dog. It couldn’t be chance or coincidence, it had to be the same one. So, Axel, an Irish dog, had followed the emigrant tradition of his forefathers whose story was, in turn, written down by Lisa, who I imagine is also of Irish stock. I never asked her, but I think it’s obvious both from the subject of her book and her red hair and freckles. Axel was now following his literary destiny, which began in that small Irish town with a long name—if indeed he was born there—and continued in some letters I’ve still got in Caracas, and which I now remember in another place that recalls the one where we met.
The woman next door is pushing a wheelbarrow across the lawn. It’s hard work for a person of her age but her movements are incredibly youthful. I had a toy wheelbarrow when I was a girl. I think it came from Juguetelandia, or if not, from Sears Roebuck de Venezuela. Instead of playing gardener I used it as part of a dialogue I maintained with a boy who lived in my room. A framed picture hung on the wall opposite my bed—I don’t remember if it was a photo, a watercolor, or perhaps a cutting from a magazine. The boy was sitting on the steps in front of his house; a clapboard house that could be any one of millions in the United States. It was surely autumn because yellow leaves lay on the ground next to the wheelbarrow. He was wearing dungarees, a striped shirt and a hat at a jaunty angle that gave him a roguish look. I was immensely curious about his house—his house or his home, whichever you want. The door was closed and there was no one else to be seen, but the whole thing conveyed the sense of peace, harmony, and intimacy I associate with the image of a 1950s North American family. The boy, however, was outside, and I was curious in part because I imagined he’d been shut out; I had a hunch that he was preparing to run away. A boy on the run from home who therefore contradicted the domestic bliss his image seemed to proclaim. I’m pretty sure I wanted to be that boy, or at least be in that house, and push the wheelbarrow containing apples I’d collect from my father’s orchard and sell to neighbours like Little Lulu.
Maybe that sense of estrangement gave rise to my voyeurism when it comes to other people’s houses. Or perhaps it was a foreshadowing of the fact that I would inhabit many houses, or rather, would live in many habitable spaces. My neighbor has opened her door again. Now she’s wearing thick gloves and is clearing the weeds that grow around her pergola. They’re trivial weeds; nothing much to worry about, I mean. Weeds I wouldn’t even notice. Today she seems determined to strike up a conversation, and we’ll obviously talk about plants, which are as foreign to me as dogs are to Milagros, but they’re among those grouped notions we start to notice when we find ourselves far from our “house” or “home.”
I’ve learnt that there are several precursors to her affinity with gardening (her father, who ran a business selling roses; her husband, golfer and golf course designer; her son, tree surgeon). She was living in a senior citizens’ residence and the institution lowered the costs for tenants who contributed with their work. So she started planting, and she’s still planting here. I suspect this is the first formal occupation she’s had, and probably before this she was a housewife, although I have no idea how she got a job at eighty-one. The mysteries of neoliberalism, or perhaps the essence of the work itself: the perennial renewal of nature. I confess my concern about what she does during the winter. She answers that then she shovels the snow that builds up in front of the door to her house; the garden is everyone’s but each house belongs to someone. She also tells me that she’s sold hers. So she doesn’t consider this cottage her “house” or her “home.”
North Americans have clearly differentiated concepts of home and house, which don’t exactly correspond to our hogar and casa. Hogar, which they often translate as “home,” can sound somewhat tacky, refer to statistics, or smack of political cynicism. When we want to say “home,” however, we say casa, which for us is synonymous with family. North Americans ask: “where’s home for you?” because they understand perfectly that the house one lives in isn’t necessarily home, and that one lives in multiple houses over time without all of them automatically acquiring the status of home. They’re experts in moving. In time, Axel will become an expert too.
“Axel, perro viajero,” originally published in Cuentos completos (1966-2001). Mérida (Venezuela), El otro el mismo, 2003 © Ana Teresa Torres. Translation © 2014 by Lucy Greaves. All rights reserved.