Angélica Gorodischer

 OF NAVIGATORS

translated by Amalia Gladhart

. .

At a quarter to ten, the bell rang. It was a Thursday of one of those treacherous springs that befall us in Rosario: Monday had been winter, Tuesday summer, Wednesday it had gotten dark in the south and hot in the north and now it was cold and everything was gray. I went to answer and it was Trafalgar Medrano.

“We’re sunk,” I told him. “I have no coffee.”

“Oh, no,” he answered. “You won’t scare me off so easily. I’m going to buy some.”

A short while later he returned with a one kilo packet. He came in and sat at the kitchen table while I heated the water. He said it was going to rain and I said it was lucky we’d had the ligustrinas pruned the week before. The cat came and rubbed herself against his legs.

“What are you doing?” Trafalgar asked her; to me he said, “I don’t know how there are people who can live without cats. In the court of the Catholic Monarchs, for example, there were no cats.”

I served him the coffee. “What would you know about the court of the Catholic Monarchs?”

“I’m just coming from there,” he answered, and he drank half the cup.

“Stop kidding me. How’s the coffee?”

“Disgusting,” he answered.

I wasn’t surprised. Partly because Trafalgar finds all coffee disgusting, unless it’s the coffee he makes himself or that made by Marcos in the Burgundy or by two or three other chosen ones in the world; and partly because I do a few things moderately well, but coffee is not included on the list. The cat climbed up on his lap and half-closed her eyes, considering whether or not it was worthwhile to stay.

“Patience, drink it anyway,” and I served him another cup while I let my own get cold. “How did you manage to travel to the 15th century?”

“I don’t see why I should travel to the 15th century. Besides, time travel is impossible.”

“If you came to shake up my bookshelves, you can be going and leave me the coffee as tribute. I love time travel, and so long as I think it is possible, it is possible.”

The cat had decided to stay.

“The coffee is a gift,” said Trafalgar. “I am going to explain to you why one cannot travel through time.”

“No. I don’t want to know. But don’t tell me that if you come from the court of the Catholic Monarchs you didn’t travel through time.”

“What little imagination you have.”

That didn’t surprise me either. “Very well,” I said, “tell me.”

And I put the coffee pot on the table.

“Perhaps the universe is infinite,” he said.

“I hope so. But there are those who go around saying it isn’t.”

“I say that because this time I traveled through some very strange places.”

That did surprise me. If there is something Trafalgar, accustomed to traveling among the stars, finds strange, it is truly strange.

“If I tell you,” he continued, and he served himself more coffee. “Don’t you have a larger cup? Thank you. If I tell you that not even the merchant princes go there.”

“And who are they?”

“I call them the merchant princes, you can imagine why. They call themselves the Caadis of Caá. They’re like the Phoenicians but more sophisticated. I know they don’t go there because the last time I was with one of them, I think it was on Blutedorn, I discovered, exchanging itineraries, that they had nothing marked in that sector.”

“What is it? Is it dangerous, sinister, all who enter are lost or go crazy or are never seen again?”

He disillusioned me.

“It’s too far away. The merchant princes aren’t idiots. A lot of expense for questionable profits. I’m not an idiot either, but I am inquisitive and I had plenty of extra money. I had been selling tractors on Eiquen. Did I ever tell you about Eiquen? A little world, all green, that moves very slowly around two twin suns?”

“Spare me Eiquen. How did you end up in the court of Isabel and Fernando?”

“Eiquen is probably a crossroads, or a hinge. Tell me, and if the universe were symmetrical?”

I liked the idea. So did the cat.

“Now you’ll see why,” said Trafalgar. “I left the tractors on Eiquen, I charged more than you can imagine, and instead of coming back, I kept going. Don’t forget I’m inquisitive. I wanted to know what there was further on, so to speak, and on the way see if I could buy something, because I no longer had anything to sell. And I had cash, and I was tired. It was a long trip. I slept, I ate, I got bored, and I didn’t find anything interesting. I was about to turn around when I saw a world that could be inhabited and I decided to land.” He looked sadly at what remained of the coffee. “Of one thing I am sure: if my heart didn’t fail me that time, it never will.”

“Why? What happened?”

“Make more coffee. But put in less water. And don’t let it boil. And moisten the coffee first with a few drops of warm water.”

“I would like to write my memoirs,” I told him, “but I can’t bring myself to get started. Someday I’m going to write yours and I’ll have my revenge.” I began to make more coffee.

The cat must have given him one of her looks because he continued the story: “The world was blue, gray, green. I got closer and as I descended I began to see Europe, Africa, the Atlantic, and for less than a second it occurred to me that I had returned. I don’t know if you realize how disconcerting the situation was, to put it mildly. A mountain of awful things went through my mind and I even thought I had died at some point between Eiquen and Earth. I calmed myself as best I could and went to check and I found it was the third planet in a system of nine. I said, I’m crazy, and I asked for more data and luckily I wasn’t crazy nor had I died: the spectrum was not entirely the same. Then I got to looking more calmly and there were little things, a few details that did not coincide. It was a world very similar to this one, almost identical, but it wasn’t this one. Don’t tell me the situation wasn’t looking tempting. I, at least, passed from fear to temptation. I turned around and came this way, I mean, I set off toward the part of that world that resembled this one, if there was one. Because if on that world there existed another Europe, another Mediterranean, another Africa, there had to exist another South America, another Argentina, another Rosario. I was half right. The continent existed, but it was empty as a poor man’s pocket, or at least that’s how it seemed to me. I even touched down beside the Paraná, the other Paraná, understand. Nothing was missing for it to be a nightmare: I knew where I was but nothing was as it should have been. There was no one, there was nothing. A viper frightened me, I heard a few roars, it was cold, so I lifted off again. It made me sad: a world like ours and wasted. But again I was mistaken. I flew over Europe and it was populated. I landed in Spain. In Castile. It was summer. This coffee is a little better than the other. I’m not saying it’s good,” he checked me, “it’s a little less undrinkable.”

“Cretin,” I said. “You could be more agreeable with the future author of your memoirs.”

He did no more than just barely smile and keep drinking that coffee that according to him wasn’t good for much.

“Well, and. . .?”

“And what?”

“Was that where Isabel and Fernando came out to receive you?”

“No. There was a tremendous uproar, true. Imagine, in Castile in 1492, a machine that comes down from the sky.”

“Wait a minute. You really mean to tell me that.”

“Don’t you see you have no imagination? A world almost identical to this one, understand? Almost identical. The contour of Africa, for example, was different. There were some peninsulas and some rather large archipelagos that don’t exist here. And in history, their clock was five centuries behind. Details. There were others, you’ll see. If you don’t keep interrupting me, of course. There was a big uproar, as I said. I had to wait almost the whole morning for someone in authority to get there, while those who had gathered decided whether to lynch me or canonize me. An unruly troop of soldiers finally came, which did nothing to settle things down. I remained locked in, waiting to see what happened. When I saw the embroidered, empurpled, bedamasked, and bemedalled appear, I opened up and climbed down. I offered explanations. The situation amused me, so I invented a story according to which I was a traveler from some vague region in the east, I had been in Cathay, and there the emperor had given me the flying machine. At first I didn’t have much success, but I got all mystical and we finally ended up all on our knees—you can’t imagine what that did to my clothes, between the dirt and the heat—giving thanks to the Almighty and to all the heavenly host. I closed up the clunker and activated the security mechanisms: if anyone got too close, they’d receive a kick strong enough to knock over a camel. The next stop was the court, they told me. I won’t even tell you what the trip was like, with the heat, the thirst, the horse they gave me, from which a big man-at-arms who didn’t take it too well had to dismount (and you already know that very athletic, I am not) but we finally arrived. That very afternoon, I appeared at court.”

“Dressed like that, with one of your formal gray suits, shirt and tie?”

“But no. What I wore on the trip could pass for ceremonial attire in Cathay, but in the palace I was saddled with an embroidered blue costume, with lace, that wasn’t fastened with buttons but with little ties and that was tight everywhere. All of this without being able to take a bath, which didn’t surprise me too much after having smelled the empurpled and bedamasked ones,” he sighed, “and without being able to smoke and without being able to drink coffee. When I remember, I wonder how I didn’t go crazy for real.”

The cat slept, or pretended to sleep, and the coffee got dangerously low.

“It was handy being a foreigner, you know? I was very much a foreigner, they didn’t how much, but they believed me foreign enough to excuse my blunders. They gave me an accelerated course in protocol. I didn’t understand any of it, but I kept afloat.”

“What would you like this chapter to be called? ‘My indiscretions at court’?”

“My indiscretions, you’ll forgive me, I am going to skip over; we’ll go in stages. The city was worthless: it was a maze of narrow, dirty little streets, a few of them cobbled, the majority no. When we passed the suburbs, I began to see important houses with grilles and balconies and statues of saints, but all of them shut up like tombs and the streets were still filthy and narrow until they opened into a few that were wider. Not a tree, not a plant, not a weed. Burros, horses, dogs, cows, chickens, but not a single cat. An infernal noise, that’s true. It seemed as if everyone was yelling, they were all arguing and fighting. I suppose I should have felt myself important, but I felt ridiculous and it wasn’t fun anymore, not fun at all. The soldiers went ahead, scattering the onlookers who moved aside but came back like flies and more than one received a blow to the face with the flat of the blade. With all that we advanced so slowly I thought we would never arrive. And then we arrived. The palace was almost as dirty as the streets, but more luxurious. I saw a few things that reconciled me to the trouble I was taking on account of my curiosity: tapestries, carved tables, pictures, grilles, and a black-eyed beauty who couldn’t have been more than fifteen years old, wearing an enormous dress, somewhere between orange and brown, with a rigid lace collar.”

The cat stretched, yawned, she stood up on Trafalgar’s bony knees, and she lay back down with her head facing the other way. Trafalgar waited until the process was completed and petted her behind the ears.

“Doña Francisca María Juana de Soler y Torrelles Abramonte.”

“Panchita to her closest friends,” I remarked. “Among whom you eventually counted yourself, I’ll bet anything.”

“Get out. She was married to a big man of the court. One of those smelly old men who look fat but they’re really thin with a belly, bowlegged, stuttering, with no more than two or three rotten teeth in his mouth, full of wrinkles, of snot, and of hair in the most inappropriate places. And she, unfortunately, was no more than fifteen.”

“Why unfortunately? What more did you want?”

“For her, I’m saying. Do you know I almost brought her with me? I must be crazy.”

“I have always maintained something like that.”

“I caught just a glimpse of her that afternoon and only because she leaned out to look. Keep in mind that I was the star of the day. And of the month and the year, no exaggeration. But she looked at me as much as she pleased and I knew she was looking and she knew that I knew. The others put me in a salon, more tapestries, more black carved furniture, more pictures, crosses, kneelers and grime, and they offered me an uncomfortable armchair, a work of art but uncomfortable, and a bowl with water and a napkin. I moistened my fingertips, trying to imagine I was taking a shower, but I regret to inform you that I am not very good at autosuggestion. I remained seated and then they all moved away a little and then the dance began.”

“They received you with a dance?”

“Don’t be an idiot. I’m speaking metaphorically. And you should know that in the court of the Catholic Monarchs there was no place for such frivolities. Keep in mind, they were extremely busy expelling the Moors, expelling the Jews, discovering America and all that.”

“Stop, stop, America how?”

Trafalgar has infinite patience. When he wants to.

“What year did I tell you.”

“You said five centuries behind.”

“To be exact, I told you 1492.”

“Jeez!”

“Exactly.”

And without his asking, I put more water on to heat. The cat purred under her breath, not like Doña Francisca María Juana I-don’t-know-what, but silently, the way she does.

“The dance, metaphorically, began. Which is to say that a few sourpusses dressed in black examined me. There was also a lousy little friar to whom I didn’t attach any importance, and I’ll tell you right now that was a mistake. I don’t know how it didn’t catch my attention that alongside so many big shots they let in a common, garden-variety little priest in an old habit who was always looking somewhere else, as if he understood nothing. But keep in mind that I was disoriented. No, the thing no longer seemed fun to me, but it was exciting. That’s when I thought that the universe is infinite and symmetrical and don’t tell me it can’t be because it can. And I also thought I had come across a good substitute for time travel. Too bad I ruined it.”

“I know. You told them the truth and they didn’t believe you and they delivered you to the Inquisition and Doña María Francisca saved you and the husband found out and.”

“But you’re crazy, how am I going to tell them the truth? And her name was Doña Francisca María Juana de Soler y Torrelles Abramonte, so you know. No, I didn’t tell them the truth. They knew a lot of protocol and a lot of catechism, but I have read something of history and geography and I had a five hundred year advantage. It may not be much, but it was enough. When I saw them, I was on the point of standing up to greet them and I even thought about making a bow, look, not very deep, but sufficiently courtly. And right then I thought about it and said to myself, they can drop dead, what they want to do is screw me, for sure, and the best thing will be to bully them from the outset. I put on my best Voltairian face.”

“You don’t look like Voltaire, you look like Edmundo Rivero only handsome.”

“Much appreciated. So I looked at them arrogantly, like a know-it-all, and they greeted me and I did not even answer: I half-closed my eyes, I barely nodded my head and I waited. They didn’t beat around the bush. They wanted to know, and if I did not tell them or if I lied they would ascertain the truth by such means as they deemed necessary, first, whether I was an envoy of the Evil One; second, whether it was true that I came from Cathay; third, whether they could, following exorcism, blessing, Masses and other nonsense, visit the flying carriage; fourth, what the hell I wanted; fifth, if I planned to stay and live in Castile; and sixth and lastly, what my name was.”

“A very thorough survey. What did you tell them?”

“I gave them a speech that lasted about a half an hour and which impressed everyone save for the lousy little friar. To begin I recalled Suli Sul O Suldi, the daughter of a farmer on Eiquen, blessed be her soul for various reasons and blessed be her body for various other reasons, who had given me an ornament that I wore around my neck. It was made of a metal similar to gold but heavier and harder, very elaborately worked and of a size we’ll call respectable—some day I’m going to show it to you, I am sure you will like it. The important thing is that it is in the form of a cross. I took it out, exchanged my know-it-all expression for one of infinite sadness with a touch of the school principal’s authority and I asked them if they could believe that an envoy of the Evil One would wear that over his heart. First point in my favor. Regarding Cathay, I mixed a sophomore’s notions of geography with Marco Polo’s voyages and I chalked up the second score. And they could visit my flying carriage and the exorcisms didn’t need my authorization; rather, I said, it was a request, a demand on my part, because since it was the gift of infidels, I was a little worried. Three for me. And so on in that fashion: I wanted nothing, I did not aspire to the goods of this world, but I would like to render homage to their majesties. It was possible I would settle in Castile, the land from which my ancestors had come, but as I was an unrepentant traveler, sometimes I would go to travel the world, never forgetting to bring back part of the marvels I encountered to donate to the most illustrious religious orders of the country. By that time, those guys were about to pee themselves and the little friar kept looking into the distance with a wooden rosary between his fingers and I thought, what an asshole and it turns out the asshole was me.”

“And what did you tell them you were called?”

“I told them my name, what did you want me to say? Anyway, Trafalgar wasn’t going to mean anything to them until three hundred years later, if there was going to be a battle of Trafalgar and an Admiral Nelson. I decorated it a little, granted: I put a de before the Medrano, I added two names and my old lady’s maternal surname, Hispanized. Turned out better than made to order. The proof is that the sour faces sweetened, and as I knew I had them in my pocket, I stood up and condescended to chat familiarly with all of them. After a while they informed me that they would house me in the palace, which was an honor, and I regretted it because I was sure there were no baths, as indeed there were not; I consoled myself thinking that at that moment there weren’t any, I won’t even say baths, not even a toilet or a miserable septic tank in all of Castile, so I put on an enthusiastic expression.”

“In the end it turns out you’re not brazen faced, as I believed, but rubber faced.”

“It depends. When they left me alone, which means they left me with three servants who were running all over the place and as far as I could tell didn’t do anything, I stretched out on a bed that had a bunch of curtains but was very comfortable and I went to sleep.”

“How you can sleep in the midst of the things that happen to you is something that I do not understand.”

“If I couldn’t fall asleep as necessary, things would have stopped happening to me a while ago.”

“Should I make more coffee?”

“I was about to ask what you were waiting for. About two hours later, they came to wake me with a good bit of to-do and they brought me those clothes I told you about, all on top of a cushion. There was even a hat, my God. And a sword. The shoes were both for the same foot and I almost let out a yell but I realized in time that it would be many more years before they made them different. I put everything on and thus I went into the throne room or whatever it was.”

“Go on, go on, what was it like?”

“A bore, full of announcements, marches, countermarches, blows of the staff and I don’t know what. And they all had a stench of goat that would knock you over. And it was hot. And I was already up to here with the Spanish monarchy.”

“Castile and Aragon.”

“Whatever. The protocol, I don’t even remember the protocol, but do you want me to tell you something? Isabel was quite pretty, not as pretty as Doña Francisca María Juana de Soler y Torrelles Abramonte, and older, but pretty. In the face, at least; as to the rest, I have no idea, with all those infected rags. Fernando had a tic and opened and closed his eyes every five seconds. If he’d been one of the boys at the café, they’d have called him Neon Sign, bet on it. And guess who was at the side of the throne?”

“The lousy little friar.”

“Exactly.”

We heard a hissing in the garden and there was a crack of thunder but the cat was unperturbed.

“It’s raining,” Trafalgar said. “Didn’t I tell you? The combination of rain and coffee reminds me of the feast of the lightning bolts on Trudu. Do you know what Trudu is?”

“No, but I imagine it’s somewhere where it always rains and where coffee comes out of the faucets instead of water.”

“Trudu? No. To begin, there are no faucets and to continue, it rains once every ten years.”

“Great for growing rice.”

“Although you might not believe it, they grow rice, though of course not the rice you know. And in addition, the rain.”

“I don’t care!” I yelled so loud that the cat opened her eyes and even made a comment under her breath. “Keep Trudu, it’s my gift to you, but go on with your presentation at court and with the little friar and with Isabel and with Fernando.”

“Fernando you can file away without a pang of conscience. Now, Isabel,” he smiled again and two smiles from Trafalgar in a single morning is a record, “was very pretty, yes, but she was a real man with a pair of brass balls. You could see it in her eyes and in the fact that although she had a more than acceptable mouth, she could narrow it until it resembled a stab wound. And her shoulders well back, her neck straight and her hands strong. I said, this girl is going to cause me trouble.”

“And the little priest?”

“There you have it, the little priest was the one who gave me the trouble although for the moment he was lying low. That time it did catch my attention that he always appeared at the important meetings, that he was so close to the throne and that nobody seemed to pay him any attention. I went so far as to think he surely wasn’t what he seemed, but with as much care as I had to take with what I said and did, I left it for later. Don’t forget what I was in the middle of. I had to recount my adventures again, silently invoking Marco Polo, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Italo Calvino, and the annals of geography. It turned out very well: they were all hanging on what I said, they were scared when they were supposed to be scared and they laughed when they were supposed to laugh. I saw Doña Francisca María Juana again.”

“De Abramonte Soler y Torrelles.”

“De Soler y Torrelles Abramonte, you would cut a sorrier figure than I at court, and I saw the old fart who alternately drooled and snorted. Fernando closed and opened his eyes more continuously all the time and wiggled his nose and possibly his ears. Isabel, in contrast, went so far as to soften her mouth and smile at me and it seems that was the height of privilege. And speaking of privileges, I even ate with their majesties that night, which is saying a lot.”

“How was the food?”

“Rather meager. Frugal, which sounds more elegant. And better we not speak of their majesties’ table manners. Nor of mine, because without forks there’s not much one can do in the way of delicate gestures. The little priest wasn’t there, thank goodness. But it was there that they told me about Columbus. By then I had already begun to get used to it all and I felt like a little picture in a history text, but that was too much. And more so when I asked if I could meet him and they told me they expected him the next day at court, when he was going to inform them of how the preparations for the expedition were going. I don’t know if it was the food which, in addition to scarce was a sticky, lumpy mess, or the prospect of meeting him personally even if he wasn’t the real one, which in fact he was, but I had a sort of weight in my stomach. Luckily the supper didn’t last long because it seemed one had to go to bed early. Which I did. Early and in company.”

Another thunder clap, more hisses, more coffee.

“As I had already suspected that would be the case, or more probably just because that was what I wanted, I got rid of the servants, I took off that ridiculous outfit, I chewed on my nails thinking about coffee, cigarettes, a book by Chandler, Jackaroe, television, anything, and I waited. She came around midnight, when I had already put out the candles but I still didn’t want to admit defeat and go to sleep. I learned the old man had a post that obliged him to go out to inspect the barracks or the markets or I don’t remember what before dawn, and so he went to bed at six in the evening, got up at eleven-thirty, locked her in, and left.”

“And how did she get out?”

“Do you think the key has been invented that will keep a woman locked up? Give me a break. And she had accomplices, of course. She left as lookout an old woman who, next to the husband, looked like Miss World, and she came straight to my bed.”

He was quiet.

“Trafalgar, don’t get discreet on me.”

“This time, I’m sorry, but yes, I am going to be discreet. “

“And how am I going to write your memoirs?”

“I’ll probably tell you one day. The one thing I’ll tell you is that I was not the first one to put horns on the old man. Rather than annoy me—you know I am a confessed libertine and for that reason I like them chaste and modest—it made me happy, because it was only right the girl have her revenge for the pawing of such a husband. She knew how to get even, I assure you. At dawn, the old woman knocked on the door and she went off in a rush. I ask, do you think you’re in Castile in the 15th century that you don’t make more coffee?”

“So much coffee is going to ruin your appetite.”

“Bet you it won’t. I’ll treat you to lunch.”

“No, my treat.”

“We’ll see.”

“What do you mean, we’ll see? You’ll stay to lunch and that’sthat. Anyway, go on.”

“I spent a cushy morning, more desperate by the minute for a smoke and a cup of coffee, but cushy. Surrounded by Lady Bigshot and Mr. Bigwig, relating my adventures, strolling through the palace and through the gardens, which were worthless. After lunch, I had another audience with Isabel, who sent for me. Once again, there was the little priest. As always alone and with an unhappy face but well placed. I had forgotten about him, go figure, what with the night I had passed, but he was beginning to worry me and maybe it was because of that he didn’t take me by surprise—or at least if I lost, I lost without making a fool of myself. We had a long conversation, Isabel and I, about philosophy, religion, politics, and—hold on—mathematics. I defended myself like a lion. Do you remember what I told you about her? All the same, I had underestimated her. Intelligent, but very intelligent. And in addition, informed about everything there was to know at that moment in time. And hard as a usurer’s heart. I don’t know if I racked up so many points in my favor, but as for a tie, we were tied.”

“Because you are very cultured, don Medrano.”

“It didn’t do me any harm to know a few things because the little priest was there for a reason.”

“I already know. He was from the Inquisition.”

“Worse. With that five-century lead, I was able to perform well and I was in agreement with her on everything, making out as if I were offering my own reasons although my guts were twisting at the outrageous things I was saying. When we were heatedly justifying the Reconquista, Columbus was announced.”

“Oh!”

“What’s wrong?”

“I’m moved.”

“I was too.”

“What was he like, what did he say to you, what did he do?”

“He was crazy.”

That took my breath away, but then I thought better. “Of course,” I said. “All of them were crazy.”

“All of who?”

“People like Columbus. Like Hector, like Gagarin, like Magellan, Bosch, Galileo, Dürer, Leonardo, Einstein, Villon, Poe, Cortés, Cyrano, Moses, Beethoven, Freud, Shakespeare.”

“Stop, stop, you’re going to drive the whole human race crazy.”

“I wish. You already know what I think of sanity.”

“At times I agree with you. But I tell you he was crazy: he was going to do anything, anything, deceive, kill, grovel, bribe, swindle, whatever it took, to get himself to sea with his three little boats. Which were four, there: the Santa María, the Pinta, the Niña, and the Alondra.”

“Go on, seriously?”

“Seriously. There were details, I already told you. And there, thinking about the little boats and about what those poor wretches were going to have to go through, the big idea occurred to me. Jeez, I’m a sap.”

“What idea? Oh, Trafalgar, what did you do?”

“I changed the course of history, nothing more than that. I didn’t realize it at the moment: I just felt sorry for him. I admired him, I was a little afraid of him, not from distrust like with the little priest but because of the heroic, the agonized aspect of the man, but above all I felt pity. Dangerous thing, pity. I thought, poor guys, why should they suffer months at sea, dying of hunger, superstition, and scurvy, if I can carry them to America in half an hour?”

“Fantastic. Of course, how could you not think that?”

“Yes. Of course, I couldn’t say it directly; or rather, I suspected that since the little priest was right there, the smartest way was not to say it directly. So I asked for permission to see the ships and it was graciously granted by her majesty. I abbreviate: I spent two more days as a wealthy idler and two more nights as the lover of Doña Francisca María Juana de Soler y Torrelles Abramonte, and on the third day, we went to Palos de Moguer. As the little priest lived more or less tied to Isabel’s apron strings, he did not come with us, to my relief.”

“The ships, what were the ships like?”

“If the ones that discovered America here were like those, I don’t know how they made it. The Admiral took me to see all of them inside and out. He was already Admiral. And Viceroy and Governor General of the lands he was going to discover and he was entitled to a tenth of the riches he was going to find. As I told you, I felt sorry for him and for that reason I was more convinced than ever that I had to take them. I proposed it to him over a big bottle of wine, you can’t imagine what good wine but I missed coffee, and even though he already knew everything about me and about my flying carriage from Cathay, he didn’t want to enter the chute. He didn’t have a lot of enthusiasm for the idea, and he went on about Ptolemy and Pliny and about the Imago Mundi, about astronomy, about cosmography, and about how to reach Cipango from the west. Prester John was mixed up with the quadrants, Eneas Silvio with Kordesius’ navigation tables. He spoke well of Garci Fernández and ill of Fray Juan Pérez and both well and ill of the king of Portugal and well of Isabel. I kept insisting on taking him to America, I mean to say to Cipango in my flying carriage, and he wasn’t saying yes. Then we returned to court and there I laid out my intentions and the little priest didn’t look at me even once. It took Isabel three seconds to recognize the advantages of a lightning expedition. Fernando didn’t speak, I don’t know why. And the little priest, not a peep. The Admiral still wasn’t convinced: he put up a thousand objections and I refuted them one by one. I thought he didn’t want me to steal the glory of the voyage but it wasn’t that, since he didn’t know if there was going to be glory or not. I knew, but he didn’t. And I don’t know that what he wanted above all would be the glory; what he wanted was to prove he was right. I finally put myself under his command and self-designated myself pilot of the carriage. But my feints had little importance once Isabel had decided in favor.”

“Then America was not discovered on the 12th of October, 1492.”

“Of course not, not there. We discovered it the 29th of July, 1492. But first we had to pass through the inquisitorial ordeals, with inspections, canticles, incense, and Masses. And you can’t imagine the farewell of Doña Francisca María Juana de Soler y Torrelles Abramonte, who believed the monsters of finis terras were going to devour me, poor thing. She had a very alert little mind but she was very ignorant, what do you expect?”

He daydreamed for a bit about Doña Francisca María and the rest and I went to empty the ashtray, waiting for him to snap out of it.

“We put the crews of the four little boats in the clunker.”

“Did they fit?”

“Didn’t I tell you I had sold five hundred tractors on Eiquen? Five hundred nineteen. There was room to spare. The fellows were scared to death and they prayed, or else they made out to be tough guys, but they had all gotten pale. And all around, enduring the midday heat because I wanted to reach America in the morning: the monarchs, the court, the clergy, the army, and the commoners. I had explained to them that it wouldn’t do to get too close, but it was a struggle to get them to move away until, when I saw their curiosity was stronger than the soldiers, I turned on the engines and they backed up like sheep. Inside, a deathly silence. Of course when we lifted off, the yelling started. Thank goodness there was a fantastic guy, Vicente Yáñez, captain of one of the little boats, and two or three thugs too stupid or too dangerous to be afraid, the kind it’s better not to meet late at night around Ayolas and Convención, who threatened to tear all of them to pieces if they didn’t stop making such a fuss. I flew low, over the sea, with all the peepholes on transparent so they would miss nothing. But I don’t remember anything about the voyage. On the pretext of driving, I closed myself in to drink coffee and smoke, at last. The only thing I lacked was the newspaper. If the sourpusses saw me there, they’d definitely turn me over to the Inquisition.”

I thought about an America discovered by a hundred bearded and illiterate slobs, a lunatic, and a man from another world aboard an interstellar ship: insanity is a great sanity, as Bernard Goorden says.

“We took forty-five minutes because I went slowly,” said Trafalgar. “At ten to nine in the morning, we landed in San Salvador because I had illusions of respecting history, as if with that little piece of verisimilitude I could repair what I had done. The Admiral and Yáñez could hardly believe we were already on the other side of the world and between the three of us we had a huge job making the others understand and that’s even though they’d seen the coasts and the ocean. We disembarked, we took possession, there were speeches and prayers and while the Admiral wept and wrote reports, Yáñez and I traversed the place and we went into the sea. We hunted, we fished, we ate, and in the evening I took them around the sea of the Antilles which they also call Caribe. We spent two days in Cuba and three in Haiti. As there were no remains of ships, we did not build forts. On the fifth day, Yáñez and I between us herded everyone together, because the Admiral, obsessed with his demonstrations of Cipango from the west, wasn’t good for much, and I took them on a trip around the world.”

“Poor Magellan.”

“Don’t even talk about it. That is among the least of my worries. Although I suppose that when I came back home, the puzzle I left will have tended to put itself back together all on its own. A tricky puzzle. I not only went around the world as close to the ground or the water as I could, but I went up and up until I showed them all that yes, their world was round and, by the way, that it was a jewel no one deserved and, also by the way, that where we’d been was not Cipango but America, although I did not say America. They had already stopped being afraid and the disorders now were of another kind. Sanitary, to tell the truth. But we returned to Castile from the east and they received us in the palace and there were celebrations that, added to the horns Doña Francisca María Juana de Soler y Torrelles Abramonte and I between us put on her husband, left me exhausted.”

“And the little priest?”

“He was around, as always. But I began to watch him and I learned (without asking, because instinct told me it was not advisable to make inquiries and I have a great respect for instinct, which has gotten me out of more than one) I learned who the little priest was.”

“You’ll forgive me, but I’m not very strong in history.”

“I’ll loan you a biography of Doña Isabel and you’ll see. But anyway, it’s getting late and we have to decide about lunch.”

It must have been true that it was late because the cat was wide awake.

“To continue screwing up history, we made five more trips: we took settlers; not conquistadors, notice, settlers. We took animals, plows, furniture, ships, teachers, physicians, chroniclers, bricklayers, blacksmiths, cabinetmakers, everything. Granted, as few soldiers as possible. Priests I had to take a lot of, more than would have been necessary and advisable.”

“So, there, that’s what the conquest became?”

“I don’t know what it became because I had to leave in a rush. The only thing I know is that I slid glory and honors toward the Admiral’s side, although some fell to me despite my efforts, and I suggested the placement of cities to be founded and I even drew the street plans with what I remembered of each one. Perhaps there, if they have already begun to exist and if they will continue existing, Buenos Aires, Lima, La Habana, Santiago, New York, Quito, are my work—indirectly, but mine. Brazil and all of North America, of this I’m sure, are already half colonized by Castile and Aragon. Do you see what I did?”

“Are you sorry?”

“No.”

“What do you mean, no?”

“Well, no, I’m telling you, no. A little uneasy, but not sorry. Uneasy because I don’t know who is going to invent the telephone and who will win the second world war, and because I don’t know to what side other factors will trend that, if you think about it, are by no means insignificant: Mayas, Aztecs, Incas on one side, to recall only the most important. Portugal, England, France on the other. England above all. What do you think my queen’s namesake will do in her turn?”

“You should have stayed and continued tangling things up, at least to be sure everything was going to be completely different.”

“You think so? I don’t. In the first place, even if I had wanted to stay, which I did not, it would have taken half a lifetime at least, and I wouldn’t have been able to, either.”

“Thanks to the little priest.”

“You have no imagination, but you hide it. Thanks to the little priest. And in the second place, tangling things too much would have done nothing other than eliminate the hope that within five hundred years there might be, there, another Trafalgar Medrano who is probably inquisitive and comes here and sticks his foot in it and changes the course of history which, given how it’s going up to now, wouldn’t be a bad thing at all.”

My heart was about to fail me, too. A woman with the same name as me, would she have a sewer cat with the airs of a princess? Would she sit down in five centuries in her kitchen to listen to the account of a journey that a man named Trafalgar Medrano had made to a green and blue world in a system of nine surrounding a star on the other side of an infinite universe, symmetrical and terrifying?

“I’m going to drink a little coffee, too,” I said.

The cat jumped to the ground. And would that woman ask herself if five centuries before there had been a woman who?

“Give her something to eat, she’s hungry,” said Trafalgar.

“Be quiet,” I answered. “Let me think.”

I gave some ground beef to the cat and I gave Trafalgar his coffee and I took mine, which was too hot.

“I was there two months,” he said. “Time enough so that between us, my flying carriage and I could begin to colonize an entire continent. Autumn was coming to Castile and Aragon and it was spring here, I mean there, you understand me, when on a morning a little like this one but more miserable, upon leaving my rooms, I encountered the little priest. I realized he had been waiting for me and it smelled bad. Not the little priest but what was coming at me. The little priest was one of the few immaculate types to be found at court. His habit or cassock or whatever that’s called was very worn and shiny at the elbows and even mended, but it didn’t knock you over with the smell. It didn’t have a smell. Nor did Doña Francisca María Juana de Soler y Torrelles Abramonte: and like her there were a few that didn’t smell. Not that they washed; it would be a question of glands, I imagine.

“Fine but, the little priest?”

“I already told you he didn’t smell.”

“Don’t be difficult. What did he want?”

“That I go, what else would he want? The little priest had his aspirations. He had favored the Admiral’s plans not because he thought it was possible to reach Cipango from the west, and it goes without saying he didn’t even dream there was another continent in the west, but rather just in case. That jerk could get to be a good player of sintu, combative style. What he wanted was power, and hidden power, which is as satisfactory as the other kind and much less dangerous.”

“But if he already had it, why didn’t he just stay calm?”

“Power, not only in Castile and Aragon, but in all possible worlds. Behold the height of humility and disinterest. And there, I disturbed him. Because he had limited himself to embroidering intrigues, but I had done important and visible things. I had not only favored the expansion of the realm, and a heck of an expansion, but had acted with supernatural efficiency. Small-minded, unconvinced little souls, like his, feel very poorly when they have to look head on at the supernatural.”

“I will never understand the thirst for power.”

“You’re a little dull, there’s nothing to be done. There in the corridor he spoke to me for the first time. He had a little voice just like the cassock: old and mended. He wished me good morning, although it was no longer the hour for good morning, and he asked if I did not believe true wisdom consisted in using the strength of the adversary to one’s own benefit. I was not ready for roundtables at that hour, without breakfast and after a rather agitated night, but I had to know what he had up his sleeve and I said yes, in certain cases that could be a correct attitude. He smiled and he told me that observing my schemes, that’s how he said it, observing my schemes, he had done precisely that. I began to walk toward where I knew there was something to eat, and he at my side. And then he told me that he had to warn me he no longer needed me. As I did not answer him, he let fly this: ‘The moment has arrived for you to go back where you came from, Señor de Medrano.’ I stopped right there and told him I would decide that. ‘Ah, no, no, no,’ he said, and he explained that if I did not leave immediately, he would denounce as an adulteress Doña Francisca María Juana de Soler y Torrelles Abramonte, an adulteress who maintained carnal relations with a subject of Satan. I realized the guy held all the aces and that I had had it, because if he could demonstrate that, and he could, everything we had done would collapse, but I tried to fight a little more. Useless. The little priest may have worn a mended habit but for my part, I think he had money hidden in his mattress: he had bought my servants and a few of those who had sailed with me on the voyages. I not only went to bed with a married woman but I drank strange black potions and breathed fire from mouth and nose when I was alone. With those witnesses, and a few others he could always obtain with a little money or a lot of fear of hell, the Inquisition was going to be satisfied. I surrendered and asked what he wanted. He wanted me to go, that was all. If I returned that very day to the infernos from whence I had come, he would not move a finger to ruin me nor to bring down the conquest, I mean, the colonization, because that was not in his interest. ‘And she?’ I asked him. He didn’t care a bit about her. As I told you, it wasn’t the first time she frolicked with another and for the little priest, who knew all about it, morals and right living interested him much less than pulling the strings behind the throne. So I left.”

“Too bad.”

“I don’t know. It was a good moment to disappear. The Admiral was no longer going to die poor and abandoned but instead covered with glory and honors and gold. No one was going to kill or get himself killed looking for Eldorado, and all of America was going to speak Spanish some day.”

“Are you sure?”

“No, of course not, but I can give myself the luxury of believing so. So I invented at top speed an expedition to Australia to see what could be done in those parts, I thought seriously about putting Doña Francisca María Juana de Soler y Torrelles Abramonte into the clunker as contraband and decided not to, I said so long to everyone and expect me back at teatime and bye-bye sweetie and I left. The one who wanted at all costs to go to Australia with me was Yáñez, but as he was in charge of a government in the new world, I made him see that his part was much more important and he stayed. And she will have cried until she found my replacement and I will have passed into legend as the hero swallowed by the unknown and the little priest will secretly sit on the throne that governs a whole continent.”

We were quiet, Trafalgar and I. Afterward I went to see if it was still raining and, yes, it was still raining, but it was starting to clear up to the south. The cat went out to the garden, investigated the climate question, and came back in with wet paws and I protested. Trafalgar remained seated at the kitchen table in front of an empty cup.

“On the trip, I had time to think a lot of nonsense,” he said while I searched the refrigerator. “I hope the little priest has gotten what he wanted and doesn’t pick on her. And that the old fart has died of black plague. And that Yáñez is Viceroy of North America. And that someday, well, you know.”

“Uh-huh,” I said. “What do you prefer? Kidneys in white wine with rice, or noodles in browned butter and a liver steak with parsley?”

A decision for five hundred years from now is no joke:

“Kidneys,” he said.
 

Excerpted from Trafalgar, © Angélica Gorodischer, 1979, © Emecé, 2001.
Published by arrangement with Small Beer Press. .

Angélica Gorodischer was born in 1929 in Buenos Aires and has lived most of her life in Rosario, Argentina. She is the author of more than twenty books and has received many awards, most recently the World Fantasy Lifetime Achievement Award.

Amalia Gladhart translated two novels by Ecuadorian novelist Alicia Yánez Cossío, The Potbellied Virgin and Beyond the Islands. Her chapbook Detours won the Burnside Review Fiction Contest. Her own work has appeared in Iowa Review, Bellingham Review, and elsewhere. She is Professor of Spanish at the University of Oregon.