My grandmother had no belly button. I found that out one night when I went into her room without knocking. It was late, I’d woken up from a bad dream and, to feel safe, I walked down the hall, thinking I’d get into bed with her. It was something I did a lot. I’d climb in between her stiff, mothball-scented sheets and in the darkness she would tell me a story to help me fall asleep. They were always stories about her life. Old family stories about her job at the ministry office, or about her fights with Octavio, my grandfather, or Don Arturo, her second husband. The setting was a bygone Santiago that I never quite got to know, though frames from it appeared in every scene she described. Everything took place in the center of the city. The Plaza de Armas, the Pasaje Matte, the Labor Ministry, the Parque Cousiño, the Politeama, the catch-as-catch-can at the Teatro Caupolicán. I always liked those stories. My grandmother spent any bits she had to spare—that’s the word she used, bits—to go and see the ñatos wrestle catch-as-catch-can. Another funny word: ñatos. All kinds of ñatos, in all kinds of spangled suits, clutching each other and fighting all kinds of ways in the ring, as she yelled from her seat: give it to him, ñato, give it to him good. As she was telling me this, she threw up her hands in bed and though I couldn’t see her in the dark, I could feel her enthusiasm. The same enthusiasm of fifty years ago. For the short time that her story lasted, we were transported from her stiff sheets to the Caupolicán. In our balcony seats we ate roasted peanuts, camouflaged in the crowd. The theater was packed, everybody shouting in the dark, eyes fixed on the ring below. A perfect square lit by spotlights: the stage or the altar where the ñatos slug it out, collapsing, contorting, howling hidden behind their brightly colored masks, as she, my grandmother, twenty years old, paycheck in her pocket, shrouded in darkness and anonymity, throws peanut shells like offerings and waves her arms, cheering on her favorite ñato. Give it to him, ñato, give it to him good.
That night I opened the door to her room expecting one of those stories. Unsuspecting, I turned on the bedside lamp and to my surprise I saw something I had never seen before: my grandmother’s naked body. She was changing clothes, sitting on the bed. I don’t know how she was doing it in the dark, but she was. Probably she always did it that way, by feel, with the light off, so that no one would come in suddenly and catch her there, as I had done. I saw her white belly, enormous as a swollen globe, completely smooth, with no belly button dividing it in the middle. It’s not that her navel was hidden under some fold of skin. It simply wasn’t there; it didn’t exist. It was like nothing I had ever seen or ever would see. Only some of my dolls had bellies like that, but I rectified their disturbing condition by pricking tiny holes in them with a pin. Nobody couldn’t have a belly button. Not even a doll bought at the corner store.
It was years before I said anything about what I had seen. My grandmother, I imagine, was grateful. I don’t know whether she was bothered by not having a belly button. Women of that era and their relationship with their own bodies was always a mystery, and in the case of my grandmother, a fathomless enigma. Never in any of her bedtime stories was there a hint of a clue that might shed light on the question. When I grew up, I was told that she had been operated on for something—an ulcer, I think—and at the end of the operation the doctor had decided, for some reason that I’m guessing was not aesthetic, to close up her belly button. He left behind a small scar that I’m sure I didn’t see that night, because if I had, it might have helped me invent an explanation for myself.
I remember the boy I saw lying on the ground in Santiago’s Plaza de Armas in 1984. There, in the same place where my grandmother saw electric light for the first time. We were in the middle of a protest and a national police officer hit the boy in the face, leaving him sprawled on the cement in a pool of blood with his eye knocked out of his head, dangling beside his face. There’s more to the story and it could be told in my own dark room to my own grandchildren, but for now I’ll stop there, with the image of that boy without an eye.
I imagine how hard it must be to grow up without an eye.
I imagine how hard it must be to live without an arm, a leg, a kidney.
Next to these thoughts, the difficulty of living without a belly button sounds minor. It’s just an orifice, a hole where grit and grime collect, a scar. But it’s the first scar. Proof of a past life, nine months long at least, mark of a time that we can’t remember no matter how hard we try.
Maybe the mystery of that past is what makes belly buttons necessary.
A kind of eye watching us from inside. Seeing us from a new angle. Like the eye of the boy in the Plaza de Armas, looking straight into its owner’s face for the first time, in close-up from the ground, in the middle of all that blood. An eye that sees our blood, our grimaces of pain, our worst nightmares. Heartless and cruel as a projectile, strange as a space probe, collecting information in a galaxy as dark as my grandmother’s bedroom, where we keep pieces of a yesterday that we have no way of remembering.
From Chilean Electric © Nona Fernandez. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2019 by Natasha Wimmer. All rights reserved.