“These days, my notion of the fantastic is closer to what we call reality,” Julio Cortázar observed shortly before his death. “Perhaps because reality approaches the fantastic more and more.” A generation later, another bold Argentinean writer is exploring the boundary between strange and familiar, uncanny and mundane, discovering eerie vistas along the way.
Samanta Schweblin draws readers into a recognizable world inhabited by people with computers and shopping lists, good intentions and reasonable expectations. In spare, lucid prose, Schweblin demonstrates again and again that she knows the weight of what is left unsaid in the comings and goings of everyday life. Then, in the turn of a phrase, she forces the reader to shift perspective; she has a gift for sketching comfortable worlds and then disrupting them with images of dark, startling power.
“Birds in the Mouth” (Pájaros en la boca), the title story of Schweblin’s second collection, is narrated by a seemingly reliable divorced father who’s worried sick about his thirteen-year-old daughter and her mysterious appetites. The narrative moves swiftly; with compressed dialogue and remarkably few visual details, “Birds in the Mouth” sometimes evokes the screenplays Schweblin wrote at the University of Buenos Aires. She makes it easy for readers to feel at home with the familial connections and disconnections, pulled along by laconic humor and a seductive undertow of fear. It’s clear from reading this bilingual collaboration that translator Joel Streicker—who received a 2011 grant from PEN’s translation fund—understands the wit, the poetry, and the menace in her work.
The daughter, it turns out, eats birds. Live birds. And the trustworthy narrator occasionally mentions details about himself that seem a bit off-key. When I first encountered this story, I found myself, almost without realizing it, pushed to look at the family from unexpected angles and finally forced to ask questions about the characters, their world, and my own. How do we ask for attention from those we need? How do we give enough of ourselves to those who need us? What sorts of nourishment, and how much, must we have to survive? What is normal? What is forbidden?
Samanta Schweblin has said that Flannery O’Connor influenced her, and she has mastered one of her forebear’s famous directives: “You can’t clobber the reader while he’s looking. You divert his attention, then you clobber him and he never knows what hit him.” “Birds in the Mouth” well and truly clobbered me, and I’m happy to have experienced this story at PEN America, a journal that makes such clobbering probable.
Founding Editor, PEN America
Recommended Reading is accepting submissions through Submittable until August 31
by Samanta Schweblin
Recommended by PEN America
Translated by Joel Streicker
I TURNED OFF THE TV and looked out the window. Silvia’s car was parked in front of the house, with the emergency lights on. The bell rang again; she knew I was home. I went to the door and opened it.
“Hi,” she said. “We have to talk.”
She pointed to the sofa, and I obeyed because sometimes, when the past knocks on the door and treats me as it did four years ago, I continue to be an idiot.
“You’re not going to like it. It’s…it’s hard.” She looked at her watch. “It’s about Sara.”
“It’s always about Sara.”
“You’re going to say I’m exaggerating, I’m nuts, all that stuff. But there’s no time today. You’re coming home right now. This you have to see with your own eyes.”
“What’s going on?”
“Besides, I told Sara you were going to come, so she’s waiting for you.”
We remained silent for a moment. She frowned, got up, and went to the door. I grabbed my coat and went after her.
The house looked as it always did, with the lawn recently cut and Silvia’s azaleas hanging from the balconies on the second floor. We got out of our cars and went inside without speaking.
Sara was on the sofa. Although classes were over for the year, she was wearing her middle school uniform, which fit her like the ones on schoolgirls in porn magazines. She was sitting with her back straight, her knees together and her hands on them, concentrating on the window or the garden, as if she were doing one of her mother’s yoga exercises.
Although she had always been rather pale and skinny, she looked brimming with health. Her legs and arms seemed stronger, as if she had been exercising for months. Her hair shone and her cheeks were slightly pink, as if they were painted—only this was real. When she saw me enter, she smiled and said:
My girl was a real sweetheart, but those two words were enough for me to understand that something was wrong, something surely related to her mother. Once in a while, I think that maybe I should have taken her with me, but almost always I think not. A few yards from the TV, next to the window, there was a cage. A bird cage—two, two and a half feet tall—hanging from the ceiling, empty.
“A cage,” said Sara, and smiled.
Silvia gestured for me to follow her to the kitchen. We went to the picture window and she turned around to make sure that Sara wasn’t listening to us. She remained sitting up straight on the sofa, looking toward the street, as if we had never arrived. Silvia spoke to me in a low voice.
“Look, you’re going to have to take this calmly.”
“Quit jerking me around. What’s going on?”
“I haven’t given her any food since yesterday.”
“Are you kidding?”
“So you can see it with your own eyes.”
“Uh-huh… Are you nuts?”
She said that we should return to the living room and she pointed to a chair. I sat in front of Sara. Silvia left the house and I saw her cross in front of the picture window and enter the garage.
“What’s up with your mother?”
Sara shrugged. Her black, straight hair was tied in a ponytail, with bangs that fell almost to her eyes.
Silvia returned with a shoebox. She held it straight, with both hands, like something delicate. She went to the cage, opened it, took from the box a small sparrow, the size of a golf ball, and stuck it in the cage. She threw the box on the floor and kicked it aside, together with nine or ten similar boxes piled up under the desk.
Then Sara got up, her ponytail shining on one side of her neck and then the other. She skipped to the cage like a little girl. Her back to us, rising up on tiptoes, she opened the cage and took out the bird. I couldn’t see what she did. The bird screeched and she struggled a moment. Silvia covered her mouth with her hand.
When Sara turned toward us, the bird was no longer there. Her mouth, nose, chin, and hands were stained with blood. She smiled, ashamed, her giant mouth arched and opened, and her red teeth forced me to jump up. I ran to the bathroom, locked myself in, and vomited in the toilet. I thought that Silvia would follow me and start in with the blaming and the ordering around from the other side of the door, but she didn’t.
I rinsed my mouth and face, then stood listening in front of the mirror. They were taking something heavy down from the floor above. They opened and closed the front door a few times. Sara asked if she could take a photo from the mantelpiece with her. When Silvia answered that she could, her voice was already far away. I opened the door, trying not to make noise, and looked out into the hall. The main door was wide open and Silvia was loading the cage in the back seat of my car.
I took a step, with the intention of leaving the house and yelling a few choice words at her, but Sara left the kitchen and went toward the street. I stopped cold so that she wouldn’t see me. They hugged. Silvia kissed her and put her in the passenger seat. I waited until she returned and closed the door.
“What the fuck…?”
“You take her.” She went to the desk and began to crush and fold the empty boxes.
“My God, Silvia, your daughter eats birds!”
“I can’t stand it any more.”
“She eats birds! Is she out of her mind? What the fuck does she do with the bones?”
Silvia looked at me, disconcerted. “I suppose she swallows them. I don’t know if birds…”
“I can’t take her with me.”
“If she stays here, I’ll kill myself. I’ll kill myself, and first I’ll kill her.”
“She eats birds!”
Silvia went to the bathroom and locked herself in. I looked outside, through the picture window. Sara waved to me happily from the car. I tried to calm myself. I thought about things that would help me walk toward the door, praying that I would manage to turn back into a normal human being—a tidy and organized guy capable of standing for ten minutes in front of the canned-goods shelves at the supermarket, confirming that the beans he’s taking are the proper ones.
If we know that some people eat people, I thought, then eating live birds isn’t so bad. Also, from a health perspective it’s better than drugs, and from a social perspective it’s easier to hide than a pregnancy at age thirteen. But everything, even the car door handle, kept repeating, She eats birds, she eats birds, she eats birds.
I drove Sara home. She didn’t say anything on the way and when we arrived she took her things out by herself. Her cage, her suitcase—which they’d put in the trunk—and four shoeboxes like the one that Silvia had brought from the garage. Unable to help her, I opened the door and waited there for her to go and come with everything.
When we went inside, I indicated that she could use the upstairs room. After she settled in, I made her come down and sit in front of me, at the dining room table. I prepared two cups of coffee, but Sara said that she didn’t drink infusions.
“You eat birds, Sara,” I said.
She bit her lips, ashamed, and said:
“So do you.”
“You eat live birds, Sara.”
I remembered Sara at age five, sitting at the table across from us, her head no higher than her plate, fanatically devouring a squash, and I thought that, somehow, we would have to solve the problem. But when the Sara in front of me smiled again, and I asked myself what it would feel like to swallow something warm and moving, to have feathers and feet in your mouth, I covered my own mouth with my hand and left her alone before the two untouched cups of coffee.
Three days went by. Sara was in the living room almost all the time, sitting up straight on the sofa with her knees together and her hands on them. I went to work early and searched the internet for combinations of the words bird, raw, eat, cure, adoption, knowing that she kept sitting there, looking toward the garden for hours.
At around seven o’clock, I would enter the house and see her just as I’d imagined. The hair would stand up on the back of my neck and I would have an urge to rush out and leave her locked inside, hermetically sealed, like those insects one hunts as a kid and keeps in glass jars until the air gives out. Could I do it?
When I was a kid, I saw a bearded woman at the circus put mice in her mouth. She held them there awhile, with the tails moving between her closed lips, while she walked before the audience smiling and rolling her eyes back in her head, as if it gave her great pleasure. Now, unable to sleep, I thought about that woman almost every night and considered putting Sara in a mental hospital. Maybe I could visit her once or twice a week. Silvia and I could take turns.
I thought of those cases in which doctors suggest isolating the patient, distancing him from the family for a few months. Perhaps it was a good option for everyone, but I wasn’t sure that Sara could survive a place like that. Or maybe she could. In any case, her mother wouldn’t permit it. Or maybe she would. I couldn’t decide.
On the fourth day Silvia came to see us. She brought five shoeboxes, which she left just inside the front door. She asked about Sara, and I pointed to the upstairs room. When she came back down, I offered to make coffee. Silvia and I sat in the living room, in silence. She was pale and her hands trembled so much that the china rattled when she set the cup on the saucer.
Each of us knew what the other was thinking. I could have said, “This is your fault, this is what you accomplished,” and she could have said, “This is what happens because you never paid attention to her.” But we were already very tired.
“I’ll take care of this,” said Silvia, pointing at the shoeboxes. I didn’t say anything, but I was profoundly grateful.
In the supermarket people loaded their carts with cereal, candy, vegetables, meat, and dairy products. I limited myself to my canned goods and I waited in line in silence. I went two or three times a week. Sometimes, even though I didn’t need to buy anything, I would stop by before going home. I would take a cart and walk down the aisles thinking about what I might be forgetting.
At night we would watch TV together. Sara, erect, sitting on her corner of the sofa, me on the other end, spying on her every once in a while to see if she was following the program or if she had her eyes fixed on the garden again. I would prepare food for the two of us and carry it to the living room on two trays. I would leave Sara’s in front of her, and there it stayed. She would wait until I began to eat and then she would say:
“Excuse me, Daddy.”
She would get up, go to her room, and delicately close her door. The first time I lowered the volume on the TV and waited in silence. A sharp, short screech, and then the sound of water running. Sometimes she would come down a few minutes later, perfectly combed and peaceful. Sometimes she would take a shower and come down in her pajamas.
Sara didn’t want to go outside. Studying her behavior, I thought that perhaps she suffered from the beginnings of agoraphobia. Sometimes I would take a chair into the garden and try to convince her to go out awhile. But it was useless. She retained, nevertheless, a skin radiant with energy, and every day she looked more beautiful, as if she spent the day exercising in the sun.
Every so often, going about my business, I would find a feather. On the floor next to the dining room door, behind the coffee can, among the silverware, still damp in the bathroom sink. I would pick them up, careful so that she wouldn’t see me, and throw them in the toilet.
Sometimes I would stand there watching how they went down with the water. The toilet would fill up again, the water would settle, like a mirror again, and I would still be there watching, thinking about whether it would be necessary to go back to the supermarket, about whether filling the carts with so much junk was really justified, thinking about Sara, about what was in the garden.
One afternoon Silvia called to let me know that she was in bed with a ferocious flu. She said that she couldn’t visit us. She asked me if I could manage without her and then I understood that not being able to visit us meant that she couldn’t bring more boxes. I asked her if she had a fever, if she was eating well, if she had seen a doctor, and when I had her sufficiently occupied with these answers, I said that I had to hang up and I hung up. The phone rang again, but I didn’t answer it. We watched TV. When I brought food, Sara didn’t get up to go to her room. She looked at the garden until I was done eating, and only then did she return to the program that we were watching.
The next day, before returning home, I passed by the supermarket. I put a few things in my cart, the same as always. I walked down the aisles as if I were making a reconnaissance of the supermarket for the first time. I stopped in the pet section, where there was food for dogs, cats, rabbits, birds, and fish. I picked up a few packages of food to see what they were. I read what ingredients they were made of, the calories they supplied, and the amounts recommended for each breed, weight, and age.
Afterward I went to the gardening section, where there were only plants, with or without flowers, flowerpots, and dirt, so I returned again to the pet section and stood there thinking about what to do. People filled their carts and dodged around me. A sale on dairy products for Mother’s Day was announced on the loudspeakers and they played a melodious song about a guy who had a lot of women but missed his first love. Finally, I returned to the canned goods section.
That night Sara took a while to fall asleep. My room was below hers, and I heard her through the ceiling walk around nervously, lie down, get up again. I asked myself what condition her room must be in; I had not gone up there since she had arrived. Perhaps the place was a real disaster, a corral filled with filth and feathers.
The third night after Silvia’s call, before returning home, I stopped to see the cages of birds that hung from the awning of a pet shop. None looked like the sparrow I had seen at Silvia’s house. They were colorful, and a little bigger. I stood there until a salesman asked me if I was interested in a bird. I said no, absolutely not, I was just looking. He stayed close by, moving boxes, looking down the street, until he understood that I really wasn’t going to buy anything, and returned to the counter.
At home Sara waited on the sofa, sitting up straight in her yoga position.
She was losing her rosy cheeks. I made my dinner, sat on the sofa, and turned on the TV. After a while Sara said:
I swallowed what I was chewing and turned the volume down, doubting that she had really spoken, but there she was, with her knees together and her hands on them, watching me.
“What?” I said.
“Do you love me?”
I made a gesture with my hand, accompanied by a nod. Everything together meant, yes, of course I do. She was my daughter, wasn’t she? And even then, just in case, thinking in particular of what my ex-wife would have considered the right thing I said:
“Yes, sweetie. Of course.”
And then Sara smiled, once more, and looked at the garden during the rest of the show.
That night she paced from one end of the bedroom to the other; I tossed in my bed until I fell asleep. The next morning I called Silvia. It was Saturday, but she didn’t answer the phone. I called later, and around noon as well. I left a message. Sara spent the morning sitting on the sofa, looking at the garden. Her hair was a little messy and she seemed very tired. I asked her if she was doing okay, and she said:
“Why don’t you go out to the garden for a little bit?”
Thinking about the conversation the night before, it occurred to me that I could ask her if she loved me, but it seemed to me a stupid idea. I called Silvia again and left another message. In a low voice, taking care that Sara wouldn’t hear me, I said on the machine:
“It’s urgent, please.”
We waited on the sofa, with the TV on. A few hours later Sara said:
“Excuse me, Dad.”
She shut herself up in her room. I turned off the TV to hear better: Sara didn’t make a sound. I decided to call Silvia one more time. But I picked up the phone, listened to the dial tone, and hung up. I took the car to the pet shop and told the salesman I needed a small bird, the smallest he had. The salesman opened a catalogue of photos and said that the prices and food varied from species to species.
“Do you like exotic ones or do you prefer something more domestic?”
I smacked the countertop with the palm of my hand. A few things on the counter jumped and the salesman remained silent, looking at me. I pointed to a small, dark bird, which moved nervously from one side of its cage to the other. They charged me one hundred and twenty pesos and gave it to me in a square box made out of green cardboard, with little holes punched around, a free bag of birdseed that I didn’t accept, and a flyer from the breeder with a photo of the bird on the front.
When I returned, Sara remained shut in. For the first time since she arrived, I went upstairs and entered her room. She sat on the bed in front of the open window. She looked at me, but neither of us said anything. She was so pale that she seemed sick.
The room was clean and orderly, the door to the bathroom half-open. There were some twenty shoeboxes on the desk, but broken down—so that they wouldn’t take up so much space—and piled carefully one on top of the other. The cage hung empty near the window. On the little night table, next to the lamp, was the framed picture that she had taken from her mother’s house.
The bird moved and its feet could be heard against the cardboard, but Sara remained immobile. I put the box on top of the desk and, without saying anything, left the room and closed the door.
I leaned against the wall to rest for a moment and looked at the breeder’s flyer, which I still carried in my hand. On the back was information about caring for the bird and its procreation cycles. It emphasized the need for the species to be paired during mating periods and what could be done to make its years of captivity as pleasant as possible. I listened to a brief screech, and then the faucet of the bathroom sink. When the water began to run I felt a little better and knew that, somehow, I would figure out a way to get down the stairs.
Samanta Schweblin was born in Buenos Aires in 1978, and studied cinematography at the University of Buenos Aires. Her first collection of short stories, El Núcleo del Disturbio (2002), was awarded the Fondo Nacional de las Artes and the Concurso Nacional Haroldo Conti. In 2008, she received an Artist in Residence scholarship in Oaxaca, Mexico. Schweblin’s second collection of short stories, Pájaros en la Boca (2009), was translated into more than a dozen languages. Her story “La Furia de las Pestes” received the Premio Literario Casa de las Américas. Translations of Schweblin’s short stories have been published in numerous anthologies, magazines, and dailies. In 2010, Granta named her one of the best young Spanish-speaking writers. Schweblin is currently a fellow of the DAAD Artists’ Program and lives in Berlin.
Joel Streicker’s translations of Latin American authors have appeared in a number of publications, including The Bitter Oleander, Words Without Borders, and Gargolye. He received a 2011 PEN American Center Translation Grant to translate Samanta Schweblin’s collection of short stories, Birds in the Mouth. Streicker also writes book reviews and essays for both the popular and unpopular press. He is a graduate of the University of Michigan and Stanford University.
PEN American Center is the U.S. branch of the world’s oldest international literary and human-rights organization. International PEN was founded in 1921 in response to the ethnic and national divisions that contributed to the First World War. Today, PEN American Center has 3,400 Professional Members—distinguished writers, translators, and editors—as well as Associate Members from all parts of the literary community—booksellers, librarians, students, passionate readers—who share PEN’s goals. The direct involvement of this broad base of committed individuals allows PEN to advocate effectively for writers and readers at home and abroad. In September PEN will launch a redesigned website; the award-winning literary journal PEN America, founded in 2000, contributes to the organization’s online presence and publishes anthologies that document and contextualize PEN’s work.
Joel Streicker’s translation of “Birds in the Mouth” was supported in part by a PEN Translation Fund grant. His statement of purpose can be found online here. The translation appeared on pen.org and in PEN America: A Journal for Writers and Readers, and is reprinted by permission of Samanta Schweblin. All rights reserved by the author.