The following translation was first published in Cosmos Latinos, ed. Andrea Bell and Yolanda Molina-Gavilán (2003). We are grateful to the translator and to the author for permission to reprint it here. You can also read the story in Spanish.
The man could feel his eyes filling with tears. Before him stood a spaceship, a giant metallic disk that seemed to be made of two enormous plates joined at the edges. The observation panels and hatchway were on the inverted upper plate, and a ring of vertical tubes circled the entire disk at the edge where the two plates met. Those must be the propulsion devices. He recognized the image that he’d seen so often among his photographs. But he’d never been just an arm’s length away from a spaceship before, the way he was now. And that’s why he felt like crying.
“See you tomorrow, Guille.”
Guillermo Maidana, surprised to see his wife standing on the street corner, said his goodbyes distractedly. Marta hadn’t combed her hair, and some of the grey strands fell across her forehead. She was wearing the old housedress she used when she went to the market. Maidana realized something bad must have happened. She didn’t approach him, though, but remained on the street corner, motionless.
“Marta, what’s wrong? Why’d you come here like that … ?”
She grabbed him by the arm and headed off down the street. This wasn’t the way to their house. What’s more, she was trying to keep him away from his coworkers, who were hanging around in small groups.
“G’bye, Mr. and Mrs. Maidana.”
“Hey, what’s wrong?” he said to her again, “What … ?”
Marta looked around to make sure no one could hear her, and without slowing down said, “Carlitos found the album. I forgot to lock the dresser drawer and he found the album.”
A knot formed in Maidana’s throat. He felt like he might throw up right there but somehow got a hold of himself. Suddenly he was the one dragging Marta along, as she clung to his arm.
“How do you know?”
“He told me himself. I hadn’t noticed it was missing from the drawer.”
“So what did he do?”
“Listen. He took it to school. The pictures impressed him and he wanted to share the treasure he’d dug up with his school friends. He told me the teacher saw it, too. The teacher gave it to the principal, who asked Carlitos whose it was and he said it was his dad’s. I don’t know why they let him come home. I’m sure they’ve already notified the Department of Internal Security. The police must be out looking for you. You’ve got to run. You’ve got to … ”
“But where can I go?” whispered Maidana.
“You have to get away,” she insisted, unable to think of anything else. “Anywhere. Right now. They’ll come looking for you at work.”
It was getting dark. Maidana could see his wife’s eyes were shining with tears. He hugged her to him, hard.
A soft purring sound emanated from the spaceship. At times the noise would grow louder, and the propulsion tubes would shoot out little blue flames. When that happened, the temperature in the ship’s vicinity increased, but the man didn’t seem to notice. His fingers caressed the metallic surface of the fuselage and touched the grooves left by the rains of cosmic dust. The man had the impression that, through the workings of some strange magic, this physical contact allowed him to commune with the far‑off galaxies that had always inhabited his dreams, but were forbidden to him.
Maidana kept going the whole night long. At times he ran, at times he trudged along slowly, but he never stopped. He stuck to the darkest, emptiest streets. He never ran across the police. At last he felt he had to stop, and leaned against a rickety wooden fence trying to catch his breath. It was starting to get light, and the kerosene streetlights were still lit up on their aluminum posts.
A noise brought back to him the sharp stab of fear: it was the splash of a horse’s hooves in the mud of a cross-street, and the squeaking of cartwheels. He looked around for someplace to hide, but found nothing. The wooden fences of the small farms stretched out in an unbroken line, offering not even a chink into which he could squeeze himself. Maidana knew if he tried to climb over one of the fences, the poorly‑nailed boards would come clattering down in a noisy heap. He chose to press up close against the fence, far away from the streetlights, fading into the shadows.
At last the cart appeared at the intersection. It was coming down Maipú Street, and kept going straight. Nothing to do with the police.
Maidana resumed walking along Lavalle Street, towards the Bajo, quickening his step each time he passed beneath one of the streetlights. He had another scare when a dog barked at him from behind a fence, but the animal had already settled down by the time Maidana crossed San Martín. The only sounds were his own footsteps squelching in the rain-soaked ground, frogs croaking in the coastal marshlands, and the song of the crickets.
A rough‑hewn sign leaning up against a lamppost bore a message written in heavy black letters: Our Dignity rejects Materialism’s temptations, which have Enslaved the World. The upper right‑hand edge of the poster had come unglued, and the fugitive man grabbed the dangling corner as he passed by and yanked. As expected, underneath was another slogan: We are the Last Refuge of Western Civilization. We are not afraid to be alone! Maidana made a face and quickly left the circle of yellowish light cast by the kerosene lamp, which swung back and forth overhead.
The man stood facing the ship, with outstretched arms that seemed to be trying to embrace the lower half of the spacecraft. He rubbed his cheek against the rough metal surface, leaving behind a damp track of tears. It was like crying over the stars. He cried out hoarsely, “Please, let me in! Let me in! I’m your friend!”
Instinct drove Maidana toward the river. It wasn’t as if it would be any easier to escape from there. All exit routes—whether by water, land, or air—had been closed off. No vessel had touched the coast in ages. No one left the country, and shipping was strictly prohibited. One of the most enduring principles of the regime was: Let us close our borders to materialist illusion. In order to comply with this slogan, first all tourist traffic was halted, then educational trips were canceled, and finally all commerce and correspondence with the outside world was forbidden. Nostalgia for a civilization with which all ties had been cut became a sort of clandestine birthright for a handful of misfits and reprobates.
But although he couldn’t dream of finding refuge out beyond the quagmires of Leandro Alem, Maidana headed into that sector and made his way to the small mountain near the coast. He plunged in among the brush, trying not to trip over any of the fallen trunks and avoiding the gullies and bogs. The first light of day illuminated his path. The smell that came from the damp, rotten wood and the stagnant ponds was getting steadily stronger. His shoes filled with water, and his wet pant legs clung to his skin. Mosquitoes formed an impenetrable cloud around his head, and he felt the quick tug of leeches on his calves.
The man beat on the armored surface with his fists, ignoring the skin scraping off his knuckles. Every blow left a stain of blood, but he felt no pain. He only wanted them to open the hatchway, to grant him asylum within the depths of the shining capsule. He shouted and pounded, shouted and pounded. The sound that came from inside the ship grew louder and more rhythmic. Once again, little blue flames spat from the propulsion tubes. The atmosphere was heating up.
“Open up! Open up!”
While he made his way through the undergrowth, Maidana told himself it was paradoxical that his own son had revealed the album’s existence to the authorities. That wasn’t the mission in store for him. Carlitos was to have become the guardian of the album as soon as he reached adolescence. That was how possession of the heirloom had always been passed on, that was how Guillermo Maidana had gotten it, he’d been given it by his father who, on that somber occasion, had told him the album’s history.
One of his ancestors had served in the air fleet that had made the last trips to the outside. He was the one who had put together the collection of photographs that had opened a fragile window onto universal civilization. The family held on to the album when, a short time later, the regime ordered the confiscation of everything that glorified “the false progress of materialism,” that was unworthy of “the solemn tradition of our native individualism.” Thus began their defiance, and thus was the album transformed into the secret object of their cult.
On Sundays, when Carlitos went to play in the park with his friends, Guille and Marta had often taken advantage of being alone to take the album from its hiding place and look through it. This ritual, which their ancestors must have performed countless times before, transported them to a world of dreams and imagination. The picture of the huge seawater desalination plants installed in the Sahara was next to the photo of the transparent survival domes that were scattered across the fantastic purple landscape of Mars; beside a picture of the Karachi skyscrapers was one that captured the intricate arabesques of the grey, elastic vegetation of Venus. One photograph’s radiant colors showed the twenty stacked artificial terraces where wheat was grown in Xinjiang, and another featured the proud outline of the Einstein III, the first spaceship to have a crew made up of representatives from every nation in the World Council. The last picture in the album was a misty panorama shot, with colossal green stone towers rising up in the background: Agratr, the first extraterrestrial city the World Council explorers had discovered …
Maidana experienced a feeling of profound disgust when he thought that the album was now in the hands of the regime’s security agents. There were few collections left in the country that contained so many of the forbidden images.
The man clawed at the ship’s fuselage. The violent scratching against the metallic surface had destroyed his fingernails. His hands were two bloody wounds. He himself was numb and didn’t feel the temperature rising as more blue flames shot out from the propulsion tubes above his head. He didn’t hear the growing rumble of the ship’s engines. One idea only was lodged in his brain: he had to break through the armored shell that separated him from the inside of the spaceship.
“Open up! Open up!”
The roar of the engines drowned out his voice.
Maidana abruptly stopped walking, and his hand clenched a tree branch. His feet sunk a little further into the mud of the swamp, but he paid no attention to that. A different sort of picture had caught his attention.
He was at a place where the mountain’s vegetation was starting to thin out again. From there a strip of sand, mud, and limestone stretched out, and roughly two blocks ahead was the river. He heard the splashing of water and waves. But that wasn’t why he was rooted to the spot.
The sun’s rays sparkled with dazzling light on a giant metallic disk. It was a ship. A spaceship. Above the dome that shaped the upper part into a curve was the emblem of the World Council. And there it was on the beach, immobile, separated from Buenos Aires by nothing but the swamps and scrub lands of the Bajo.
Maidana realized that something extraordinary must have happened. His eyes had often followed the World Council ships on their glittering path across the sky. But never in the last twenty years had one landed in the forbidden zone. Once, due to a breakdown in the guidance system, a ship had come down near the city of Tandil. Its crew had gone out in search of help … and was gunned down by a watch patrol. The next day there was an announcement that security forces had discovered and wiped out a gang of foreign infiltrators. The story became the main theme of the regime’s propaganda for a year, and after that the affair was never spoken of again. The abandoned spaceship, which turned out to be indestructible, was surrounded by a fence so as not to awaken any unhealthy curiosity.
This ship must have suffered some kind of breakdown, too, but its crew knew the risks involved with landing there. The hatchways were hermetically sealed and the beach around the vessel was empty. No doubt the mechanics were inside the ship working quickly to repair the problem and leave before morning passed and a watch patrol showed up.
Maidana walked toward the ship, slowly and cautiously at first, then more quickly. He crossed the last stretch of beach at a run. He could feel his eyes filling with tears …
He fell to his knees beneath the curve of the fuselage. He covered his face with his hands, and the blood from his torn fingers mixed with the tears running down his cheeks. The engines roared overhead. The column of blue fire that exploded from the propulsion tubes enveloped the figure kneeling on the beach, and then seemed to become solid, supporting the ship as it rose. The displaced air formed a whirlwind that shook the branches of the nearest trees and churned up a cloud of blackened dust and ashes. Then, slowly, the dust and ashes floated softly back down to the empty beach.