Tag Archives: creative writing

Babel

2 Dec

iss

This past summer, I wrote a few pieces of short fiction for the Library of Virginia´s Dark Side contest (one of which ended up nabbing second place and winning me, among other library knickknacks, a snazzy Walt Whitman-scented candle – whatever that means). I´d forgotten about the rest of the entries I wrote until my literature professor here in Valencia asked us to write a piece of science fiction with a female narrator.  As this fit the bill perfectly, I thought I´d try my hand at some translation.  Below is the story in both English and Spanish.

English

It’s shifts like this one where I’d trade every last cigarette from my ration pack for a scoop of ice cream that isn’t freeze-dried, or a green skirt instead of my uniform jumpsuits, or a window that doesn’t look out on stars and nebulas pinwheeling past. Shifts that go for eleven hours, from the moment I roll out of my bunk in the American quarters until I head back for a protein bar and a few minutes of quiet. Shifts where my fingers burn from manipulating keys and wires like it’s some kind of game.

“Talia.” I don’t look. There’s a crick in my neck from staring at one of the maintenance boards for the main solar panel array. “Hey. Talia. You hear me? Look alive.” It’s Ramirez’s voice, the young Texan with big ears who got here two weeks ago. He still has that sturdy glow of someone who’s come from Earth not long ago.

“What do you need, Ramirez?”

“Pass me your set of pliers, would you?”

“Yeah, sure.” I give him the worn set we share among our crew of six.

He touches me on the shoulder. “Only half an hour left until we’ve finished our daytime.”

“Yeah, maybe. We need this repaired if we want to keep the toilets flushing.” I wonder when the stale air and sterile walls of the ISS will grind down his smile, the light in his eyes.

It only takes forty-five minutes past the end of our day cycle for us to completely rework the wiring. “Not so bad,” says Xiao, listlessly flipping her black ponytail over her shoulder as we pack our toolkits. “We’ll be able to shower for another week, at least. Come on, let’s check out the news.” Our wrists ache as the six of us – Ramirez, Xiao, Welch, Koerner, Ortuña, and me – walk single-file through the narrow halls. We pass a woman with the Japanese flag on her uniform, two whispering Brazilians, a gaggle of Spaniards. We only nod to the Japanese woman. President Adamson is in diplomatic talks with the Japanese prime minister right now, so we can afford to be friendly.

The rec room is filled with the tang of sweat and the babble of five different vidscreens. There are people eating packets of rehydrated kung pao chicken and playing cards, but most are watching the screens. I see images of tanks and soldiers and men in suits flash by in the dizzying tango of a news report.

“It’s the Israeli-Egyptian border this time,” Swenson, one of our astrophysicists, tells me as I slide onto a chair. “The Egyptians have surrounded it. Their president says he needs proof that they don’t have neutron bombs.”

“Are we involved yet?”

“Adamson hasn’t commented.”

“Just doesn’t want to hurt his chances in the 2052 election,” mutters Xiao.

“The Egyptians are using this as an excuse,” says Arsenault in his guttural English, puffing on a smokeless cigar. We’ve been on good terms with the French lately, so Arsenault and the rest of his crew are sitting near the American table. I look around and notice that the Egyptians aren’t here. The Israelis are huddled in a corner, fingers clenched, brows together. I remember what my superior told me when I made it into the ISS Bridging Borders program a year ago: You’ll be representing the United States, okay, Gardner? So you’ll act like every single person up there is your brother or sister, even if their higher-ups are trying to beat the crap out of ours planetside. Easy in theory. Not so much in practice.

“Hey,” says Xiao, whipping a deck of cards out of her uniform pocket. “Anyone up for a game of blackjack before night cycle?”

I shrug. “Why not?”

“What’ll we bet?” asks Ramirez.

The idea is in my head before I can stop it. “Our comm minutes. If you go bust, you give them up.”

“But…” Swenson blanches. “We only get fifteen this week-”

“So don’t play,” I say, grabbing the deck from Xiao and shuffling. A perk of being one of the best mechanical engineers in the world is the ability to riffle a deck better than a Vegas card shark. Swenson’s eyes go hooded, like a snake’s, and she sits back down. I deal out two cards to her, Xiao, Ramirez, Koerner, Arsenault, and myself. “Remember. Over twenty-one and you’re as good as spaced. Xiao? Hit or stay?”

“Hit me,” she says, her fingers restlessly twining in her hair, her gaze glued to the vidscreen. I send a card shooting across the table.

“Koerner?”

“Hit, captain.”

“Swenson?”

“Stay.”

Their voices weave themselves into the hum of the news report. David Ely, chair of Middle Eastern Studies at Stanford, joins us with commentary. I think of those extra minutes blinking on my comm, of my mother’s tinny voice, piped in from Virginia. Of Cassie’s low, animal-like cooing. Sometimes I think I am forgetting the way it feels to tug a brush through my daughter’s hair. I don’t know how tall she is anymore. We need you, my superior said when I asked for leave. It’s a mess down here, but up there? You guys might be doing something good.

“Bust,” says Xiao three rounds later, leaving only Arsenault and me still in the game. He has three cards face-down and one, a jack, face-up. I stare at him. His lips are pursed like an old woman’s.

“Stay,” he says, not shifting.

Sources have not yet found evidence of enhanced radiation weapons.

I have a six face-up, a three, four, and seven face-down. Twenty. With four cards and one a face card, he has to be at twenty-one. Or twenty, and dealer loses a tie.

“Hit,” I say, and deal myself another card, fingers twitching for an ace. Arsenault watches, stone-faced, as I turn it over. It’s a seven.

“Well?” he says.

This just in, blare the screens. Egyptian forces have crossed the Israeli border.

“Your game,” I say, and get up to leave.

Spanish

Estos son el tipo de turno cuando intercambiaría mi último cigarrillo de mi paquete de raciones por una bola de helado que no se deshidrate, o una falda verde en el lugar de mi uniforme de mono, o una ventana que no mire a las estrellas y nébulas como molinillos. Turnos que duran once horas, desde el momento en que me despierto en dormitorio americano hasta que yo vuelvo para una tableta de proteína y unos minutos de silencio. Turnos en que me duelen los dedos a causa de manipular las cuerdas y los cables como si fuera un tipo de juego.

-Talia.- No miro al hablador. Tengo tortícolis a de quedarme mirando al tablón de mantenimiento que controla los paneles solares. -Ey. Talia. ¿Puedes oírme? ¿Estás viva?- Es la voz de Ramírez, el joven tejano con orejas grandes que llegó aquí hace dos semanas. Todavía tiene el buen color de alguien que no hace mucho tiempo que ha llegado de la Tierra.

-¿Qué necesitas, Ramírez?-

-Pásame unos alicates, por favor?-

-Sí, claro.- Le doy los alicates que compartimos entre nuestro equipo de seis personas.

Me toca el hombro. -Solo media hora hasta que hayamos terminado con nuestro ciclo de día.-

-Quizás. Tenemos que reparar esto si queremos tirar de la cadena.- Me pregunto cuándo el aire viciado y paredes estériles de la estación ISS hará añicos de él.

Cuesta cuarenta y cinco minutos después del fin oficial de nuestro ciclo de día para revisar completamente la instalación eléctrica. -Bien,- dice Xiao, lanzando su colita negra sobre el hombro mientras arreglamos nuestras cajas de herramientas. -Podemos ducharnos por otra semana, por lo menos. Vamos, vemos las noticias.- Nos duelen las muñecas mientras nosotros – Ramírez, Xiao, Welch, Koerner, Ortuña, y yo – caminamos uno tras otro a través de los pasillos estrechos. Nos cruzamos con una mujer con la bandera japonesa en su uniforme, dos brasileños cuchicheando, y una bandada de españoles. Solamente saludamos con la cabeza a la mujer japonesa. El presidente Adamson está en conversaciones con el primer ministro japonés, así que podemos ser amables.

La sala de recreo está llena del olor penetrante del sudor y el parloteo de cinco pantallas. Hay gente comiendo paquetes de pollo kung-pao rehidratado y jugando a los naipes, pero la mayoría están mirando las pantallas. Veo imágenes de tanques y soldados y hombres vestidos en trajes pasando a toda velocidad en el tango mareado de las noticias.

-Es la frontera entre Israel y Egipto esta vez,- me dice Swenson, una de nuestros astrofísicos, mientras me sento. -Los egipcios la tienen rodeada. Su presidente dice que necesita una prueba que de no haya bombas de neutrinos.-

-¿Estamos entrañados ya?

-Adamson está sin comentarios.-

-Él no quiere hacer daño a su casualidad en las elecciones de 2052,- murmura Xiao.

-Los egipcios están usando eso como excusa,- dice Arsenault en su inglés gutural, dando pitadas a un cigarrillo eléctrico. Nos hemos llevado bien con los franceses recientemente, así que Arsenault y el resto de su equipo se sientan cerca de la mesa americana. Miro alrededor y me doy cuenta deque los egipcios no están. Los israelíes se acurrucan en un rincón, los dedos apretados, las cejas de punto. Recuerdo lo que mi superior me dijo hace un año, cuando ganó la entrada al programa de ‘ISS Bridging Borders.’ Representarás a los Estados Unidos, vale, Gardner? Entonces vas a actuar como si cada persona fuera tu hermano, aunque sus superiores estén tratando de dar una paliza a nosotros en la Tierra. Fácil, teóricamente. En la práctica, no lo es.

-Oye,- dice Xiao, cogiendo una baraja de cartas del bolsillo de su uniforme. -¿Alguien quiere jugar la veintiuna antes del ciclo de noche?-

Me encojo de hombros. -¿Por qué no?-

-¿Qué tipo de apuesta?- dice Ramírez.

La idea está en mi mente antes de que pueda detenerla. -Nuestros minutos de móvil. Si alguien quiebra, renunciará a los minutos.-

-Pero…- Swenson se pone pálida. -Recibimos solo quince minutos esta semana…-

-Entonces no juegues,- digo, cogiendo las cartas de Xiao y barajándolas. Una ventaja extra de ser una de los mejores ingenieros mecánicos del mundo es la habilidad de hojear una baraja mejor que un tahúr de Las Vegas. Los ojos de Swenson están encapuchados ahora, como los de una serpiente, y se sienta. –Recordad. Más de veintiuno y estáis muertos. ¿Xiao? ¿Doblas o no?-

-Doblo,- dice, los dedos entrelazándose nerviosamente, su mirada fijada a las pantallas. Le tiro una carta a ella sobre la mesa.

-¿Koerner?-

-Doblo, capitana.-

-¿Swenson?-

-No voy a doblar.-

Sus voces se mezclan con el zumbido de las noticias. David Ely, chair of Middle Eastern Studies at Stanford, joins us with commentary. Pienso en los minutos extras parpadeando en mi móvil, en la voz metálica de mi madre, que está en Virginia. En el arrullo bajo de Cassie. A veces creo que me olvido como me sentía cuando cepillaba el pelo de mi hija. Ahora, no sé su altura, exactamente. Te necesitamos, me dijo mi superior cuando pedí permiso para estar con mi familia. Aquí todo es un lío, pero ¿allá arriba? Es posible que hagáis algo bueno.

-He perdido,- dice Xiao después de tres rondas. Nos quedamos yo y Arsenault en el juego. Él tiene tres cartas boca abajo y una, la sota, boca arriba. Miro fijamente a él. Frunce los labios como los de una anciana.

-No voy a doblar,- dice.

Sources have not yet found evidence of enhanced radiation weapons.

Tengo un seis boca arriba y un tres, un cuatro, y un siete boca abajo. Veinte. Con cuatro cartas y una boca abajo, tiene que tener veintiuno. O veinte, y el repartidor pierde un empate.

-Doblo,- digo, y me doy otra carta, los dedos esperando un as. Arsenault me mira, con la cara como piedra, mientras la pongo boca arriba. Es un siete.

-¿Y qué?- dice.

This just in, retumban las pantallas. Egyptian forces have crossed the Israeli border.

-Has ganado,- digo, y me pongo de pie para irme.

Obviously, I´m pretty new at this translation business, so if you have any suggestions or ideas for me, don´t hesitate to let me know.  I´d love to hear from any Spanish-speakers about how this piece sounds!  In addition, thanks to Jesús, my superguay professor, for helping me translate.

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A Very Ballou Thanksgiving

23 Nov

Thanksgiving Claus (Will) with the Merry Thanksgiving Elf (Clara)

The Clements from Charlotte, my father’s sister’s family, are coming to visit us for Thanksgiving this year.  This is likely to cause a near explosive level of snark and sass, since my father’s side of the family is known for its absolute sarcasm that, in any other household, would probably get everyone around the Thanksgiving table shot dead.

My father and his sister, Kaki, are Irish twins, born in the same calendar year.  As the younger one, he trailed Aunt Kaki by one year in school.  But he took all the advanced classes his Roanoke school had to offer, meaning that he and his sister often attended the same courses together.  The soul of propriety, my father would sit behind Aunt Kaki and color her blonde hair black with a pen, or make fart noises come from the seat of her chair.  This can create an interesting family dynamic.

Aunt Kaki, Uncle Mike, and their sons Will and Walker arrive the day before Thanksgiving.  Will, five years my senior, is probably the closest to ‘nice’ that our family can muster.  Walker, three years older than me, is a Bioware gamer, beer enthusiast, and bioethicist-in-training.  What Will lacks in corrosiveness, Walker generously makes up for tenfold.

I have recently chopped my elbow-length hair off to the chin.  You make sure to be here exactly when your family comes, my mother has told me.  So you can show off your pretty new haircut.

“Who the fuck are you?” says Walker upon seeing me lounging on the front steps.

This is a promising start.

*

“You know, it’s amazing,” my mom says.  I am reading a book in the living room as she cleans the windows.  “I went to take your laundry out of the dryer and Small Dog had already chewed the crotch out of a pair of underwear.  It stunned me.”

Small Dog, our Dachshund/Shih-Tzu mix, is about the size of a shoebox and gets mistaken for a stuffed animal whenever we have guests over.  She looks roughly like someone crossed a gremlin with a teddy bear and animated it.  Like many dogs, she will chew whatever items of clothing are left lying around.  Her favorite is underwear.  Used underwear.

“Maybe I threw her in there with my dirty clothes,” I say.

“Or maybe…” She chews on her lip.  “Did someone in college eat out the crotch of your underwear?”

Everyone in the living room stares.

Mother.”

“Ooh, whoops, not what I meant!” She giggles and scours the windows for the fifth time.

*

During Thanksgiving Dinner, my ten-year-old brother yanks open the door to the bathroom adjoining the dining room, flicks on the light switch, and empties his bladder in full view of the family.

“Hoby?  Is that you?”  my mother says.  “Hobson?”

There is no response.  He continues to piss merrily into the toilet bowl.  The rest of us, gravy-smeared and reeking of cranberry relish, gape through a tryptophan-induced haze.  Our food babies prevent us from taking action.

“You just shut that door right now, Hobson Ballou!”

He only giggles and scrambles, Gollum-like, out of the bathroom and into the living room.  We hear the modulated beeping of the Wii as it starts up.

“Not, er.  Really one for family gatherings.  Is he?” stammers my grandmother.

“That kid,” mutters my dad.  He tells the Clements the story of how Hoby, at five years of age, asked his classmate Abigail if she would like him to shake his booty for her benefit.  Abigail responded that she most certainly would.  Hoby’s preschool teacher looked into the corner of the room to see him mooning his class, his snow-white buttocks pumping in the air.

“Hoby’ll be a politician one day,” Walker says.

I snort.  “Why?  Because he does things of questionable appropriateness in front of young women?”

“Nah.” He burps eloquently.  “Because he keeps his promises.”

*

…I wish mine looked this good. But you get the general idea.

My sister Clara unveils our four Thanksgiving pies waiting on the sideboard with all the eagerness of a Toddlers ‘n Tiaras stage mom pushing her darling onto the pageantry circuit for the first time.  “It’s time, bitches.”

The rest of the family rushes the sideboard, but Walker and I hang back.  We have other plans.  Namely, deep-frying cookie dough.  “What, are you trying to make our kitchen into the Alabama state fair?” my mother asked when I informed her we would be appropriating the stove for our culinary shenanigans.

I mix the batter, leaving the oil on low heat as I hum along to “All I Want For Christmas Is You” (and then hate myself for it).  After a few minutes, I dip the thermometer in the oil.  The display reads 425 degrees Fahrenheit.  Which is the temperature at which hot oil tends to explode.

“Oh, fuck,” I mutter, and thumb the heat off.

“Everything going okay?” Walker asks from the living room.

“Uh.  Fine.  We’re fine.”

It is safe to say I have never been known for my cooking prowess.

Eventually, I scrounge up the nerve to dip a chunk of batter-covered dough into the oil.  In less than a minute, the kitchen smells like a McDonald’s that never passed its safety inspection.  But the batter fizzes and browns in the oil, just like it’s supposed to.  After a while, I have six golden, sugar-dusted balls of heart attack waiting to happen.

“This is disgusting,” says Walker, and shoves one in his mouth.  “And also orgasmic.”

“God bless ‘Murica,” I agree.

*

My father, relaxing in the half-finished basement after his day of hard labor in the kitchen, is watching a show called Punkin’ Chunkin’.  Walker and I, intending on watching Joss Whedon’s Serenity, catch him half-dozing on a ratty old couch while observing men past their prime hurl pumpkins from catapults.

“The hell is this?” I want to know.

“A show about men and their pumpkins.  It being Thanksgiving and all,” he says, and goes back to sleep.

One by one, overweight men (there are no women in sight) with thick accents natter on about the perfect construction with which to chuck their vegetables thousands of feet.  “It’s become my life, it has,” declares one man, solemnity written into the thick lines of his face.  “At my son’s wedding, what was I thinkin’ of?  The chunk.  Christmas mornin’?  The chunk.  The chunk is sacred.”

The three of us relax deep into the unraveling furniture that’s been relegated to the basement over the years, turkey and fried cookie dough weighing pleasantly on our stomachs.

“Y’know what would happen if anyone invaded the U.S.?” Walker asks.

“What?”

“We’d have the weirdest, least-predictable guerrilla defense forces you’ve ever dreamed of.”

“That’s the truth,” murmurs my father.  “The 501st Chunker Regiment.  Heh.”

The somnambulist glow of the television at 11:00 on a Thanksgiving evening draws us in.  We stare, blinking slow like frogs, into the deep void of niche reality TV and wait for the tryptophan to take us for good.