PUBLISHERS OF LITERARY FICTION SINCE 1983
Translator: Margaret Jull Costa
One rainy night, a distant wind blew into the garden. Alfanhuí had his window open, and the wind made the flame of his lamp flicker. The shadows of the birds trembled on the walls. They moved only slightly and hesitantly at first, as if they had been woken unexpectedly. From his bed, Alfanhuí saw the shadows trembling on the walls and the ceiling, and saw how they fragmented and overlapped in the corners of the room. It seemed to him that his little room was getting larger and larger until it had become a vast salon. As the little flame in the oil lamp flickered, the shadows of the birds were growing larger too and more numerous. The wind was blowing more forcefully in through the window and brought with it something like the music of rivers and forgotten forests.
The flame made the shadows dance to that music. Like ghosts or puppet birds they began dancing the arcane dances, the primitive dances of their species, tracing on the high ceiling of the salon a great ring of wings and beaks, a constantly changing ring, light and luminous, that turned and turned, restoring to the dead shadows the birds' former colours. In the middle danced the heron with the Chinese eyes, moving its beak to a haughty rhythm, keeping time for all the other birds, and the wind seemed to be hurling gusts of rain into its eyes. The stuffed birds had vanished from their pedestals, as if the rain had brought them back to life, and they had flown off to join their shadows dancing on the ceiling of the salon.
The fog of silence and solitude vanished, and forgotten visions awoke as the music of the wind and the rain met the dead colours of the birds. In the middle of the ring of birds on the ceiling, a circle seemed to open up to which all the primitive colours were returning. The thousand greens of the jungles, the white of waterfalls and, from the land of wading birds, the pink and grey of the wetlands, with a red sun trembling on the muddy, bloodshot surface. At the foot of the purples and yellows of the reedbed gleamed the black silt of the banks, carpeted with tiny roots that snaked about amongst the myriad tracks left by different birds. The salty whites of the estuaries returned, along with the saltmarsh birds who probe the mudflats with their long beaks. And the marine sun of the seagulls and the albatrosses beating down on a desert of sand and conch shells. The blue of the cities of the land came back, as well as the swallows threading through the arches of the towers, stitching belfry to belfry with the threads of their flight. The wind also blew open a book of dried flowers and began leafing through it. The flowers grew moist again and revived, climbing the walls of the salon, invading everything, forming a dense, flowering arbour full of nests from which more birds emerged and immediately flew up to join the luminous circle on the ceiling.
Alfanhuí would have been unable to say whether there was a dark solitude in his eyes and an unfathomable silence in his ears because the music and the colours came from that other place from which concrete knowledge never comes, a place abandoned on the very first day behind the farthermost wall of memory where that other memory is born: the vast memory of things unknown.
The birds danced and danced the primitive dances of their species, and once more there was that intermingling of flocks flying towards the sacred rivers - to the Euphrates, to the Nile, to the Ganges, to those Chinese rivers named after colours - once more the whole migrant, multicoloured geography of birds, the light of ancient lands.
Then the luminous circle of visions vanished, and the dance of the shadows returned to the walls, obscure and agitated this time, like a witches' dance, moving to the dull thud of a distant drum, a dance by stiff ghosts with gangling legs. Faster and faster they danced; the salon walls were closing in again, the room pressing in around Alfanhuí's head. The dance and the shadows shrank smaller and smaller around the flame of the lamp. The shadows returned like grey butterflies singeing the dust on their wings. It was the dust from the birds' dry feathers, and, for a moment, the infinitesimal motes glowed incandescent, repeating, as they burned, each of the bright, distant colours in the visions, only to be lost again in the small, simple light of the lamp. Everything once more withdrew into itself. The wind had dropped. The shadows were dying, once more motionless on the grey walls; the birds were dying in the empty glint of their glass eyes, and the final drop of oil rose up to the exhausted flame, expiring on the threads of the wick. The flame sputtered out with the last dust motes and was soon nothing more than a smoking cinder, barely glowing, in the brass lamp. The dark, moribund smell of burnt oil hung in the air, and everything went dark. There was now a light silence that seemed to be waiting for a clear, solitary voice, for a song greeting the dawn or for the footsteps of hunters.